Covering a war and reporting a presidential election requires deft planning for any television news organization. After that? "We can cover two big stories at a time. If there is a third, we'll start to get stressed," said ABC News Senior Vice President Paul Slavin.
Capturing Saddam Hussein on Dec. 13 created a new momentum for Iraqi coverage, perhaps, but scarcely changed the day-to-day reality of staffing and paying for it. Fox News Channel has budgeted people and finances for both overseas coverage and the political story back home. Big news changes all of that though, says head of newsgathering John Stack: "A lot of these plans are in pencil."
It has been six months since the Bush administration declared the end of major combat, but the Iraq story still leads newscasts. That's something news executives admit they didn't anticipate.
When U.S. forces captured Hussein, viewership soared. The cable news channels quadrupled their usual ratings, and more than 23 million viewers watched the three broadcast evening newscasts that day.
But, news executives say, the Hussein grab doesn't change their plans in Iraq. "The war will continue, the war on terrorism will continue, and we need to staff accordingly," says NBC News VP of News Bill Wheatley.
Staffing levels remain high, with ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC all keeping at least 20 full-time staffers in Baghdad. APTN is also beefing up its ranks. Some high-profile talent, from ABC News' Ted Koppel to CBS 60 Minutes II
correspondent Scott Pelley, is in Iraq or is expected to go soon.
A consequence of miscalculating a protracted conflict in Iraq is that it has become a budget-busting operation. "We're spending money we don't have [right now]," says CBS News Senior Vice President of Hard News Marci McGinnis.
The tab for security and transportation is extremely high. ABC recently upgraded its transportation with larger, more secure armored cars. Every news crew travels with private security guards. NBC expects it fork over millions of dollars in extra insurance premiums next year.
At all the networks, executives had to go back earlier this year and revise their 2004 budgets. They needed millions of dollars more for Iraq, although no one will say exactly how much. Come January, says a relieved McGinnis, "we'll have extra money without going into the red every week."
As the conflict has stretched on, travel has become a major anxiety and expense. The networks rotate personnel in and out every few weeks, particularly around the holidays. Correspondents and crew must fly to Amman, Jordan, and travel by land into Iraq. Flying into Baghdad is considered too risky because of rocket attacks.
Once inside Iraq, the environment is "sketchy", says CNN American Morning
anchor Bill Hemmer, who wears a Kevlar vest when he ventures out. The correspondent, who wants more international seasoning, was dispatched to Iraq after Hussein's capture. He has reported from Afghanistan and Israel, but this was his first trip to Iraq.
He's learning what the military calls "ground truth. My expectations were much higher than the reality," he said last week. "They talk about democracy and modernity. Those are thematic for now."