Peter Jennings' attire was a hint to the tone of this year's Sept. 11 coverage. Last week, the ABC News anchor was somberly clad in a dark jacket, white shirt and navy-blue tie. On Sept. 11, 2001, he shed his sports coat, rolled up his sleeves and dug in for a four-day stretch.
Compared with the frantic breaking news of last year, the first anniversary felt smooth and composed. It was largely a staged event. Broadcast and cable news outlets had spent months polishing the blanket coverage that spanned more than 15 hours.
"We documented the resolve and remembrance with the ceremonies, interviews and discussions," said NBC News Senior Vice President Bill Wheatley.
News analyst Andrew Tyndall was less impressed. "It was a top-down, pre-orchestrated event driven by the media rather than actual news events or a great upsurge in public interest," he said.
Despite the heightened terrorism alert (which cable networks installed as yet another graphic on Sept. 10 and 11), the day passed almost without incident.
A few small frights occurred. As preliminary reports swirled about a potential hijacking on a plane from Houston to Dallas, "we were trying to be very careful because of the anxiety of the anniversary," explained Fox News assignment manager David Rhodes.
For viewers and news staffers, the early hours of coverage on Wednesday, with the ceremonies at the World Trade Center site, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, were particularly draining.
Networks had learned only a few weeks before that all the victims' names would be read aloud. Many coverage elements, like packages and interviews, had already been painstakingly arranged, and news execs had to quickly debate presenting the readings.
"The conversation begins, 'Is it going to be boring TV, emotional TV, striking TV?'" recalled Marcy McGinnis, CBS News senior vice president of news coverage.
Her organization delivered a gripping presentation, continuously scrolling pictures of the victims, with their names and ages. Out of about 3,000 victims, McGinnis estimates, CBS was missing just 100 photos. CBS News elected not to contact victims' families for photos. Instead, staffers combed Web sites, contacted universities and employers. The Knights of Columbus provided a snapshot of one victim, who had been a member.
"You can hear and see a name, but, when you see a picture and an age, it makes it real," McGinnis said, adding, "It was a daunting task."
Organizers hoped to conclude the Ground Zero ceremony at 10:29 a.m. ET, but it stretched past 11 a.m. On several channels, anchors offered information and anecdotes, drawing ire from critics.
"The concern was that television could not bear the vacuum that three hours of reading names entailed," observed Bob Thompson, head of Syracuse University Center for Popular Television. "So they were color commentators."
The area around Ground Zero was a media village, ringed by radio and television staffs from around the nation and the world. The news organizations ranged from Middle East all-news channel Al Jazeera to the ABC Radio Network to WINS(AM) New York, the all-news station that claims more listeners than any other station in the nation.
Some channels opted for more-subtle ways to mark the day. Scripps Networks' Home & Garden Television and Food Network went dark for part of the morning, while A&E Network and The History Channel scrolled victims' names.
Court TV used pool video for its coverage of morning events and introduced a news crawl. ShopNBC picked up MSNBC's coverage until 1 p.m. ET and then donated sales to charity. MTV repeated a special on how pop culture changed post-9/11.
During the morning, commercials were halted. By the afternoon, a few slipped in; most were patriotic spots, save for a few random commercials, like one for Ovaltine on MSNBC. NBC and ABC did take a moment to plug the new fall season, though, with promotional spots for The West Wing
and NYPD Blue, respectively.
Prime time programming played to the networks' strengths or, at least, habits. Fox News and MSNBC trotted out their usual talk lineups, focused on 9/11. CNN had Larry King in New York for a two-hour special.
On broadcast, CBS boasted its 60 Minutes II
coup, Scott Pelley's exclusive interview with President Bush, and a replay of its 9/11
documentary. NBC aired a commemorative concert, and ABC, on a mission to "own" the 9/11 story as one media report said, kept to news.
For all the expectation that viewers would turn away, though, prime time viewing levels were routine. CBS finished on top, averaging a 7.6 rating and 13 share in prime, according to Nielsen Media Research. NBC was second with a 6.4 rating and 11 share. ABC was third at a 6.2 rating and 11 share. According to fast affiliate ratings, Fox earned a 2.0 with a 3 share. Marks for The WB and UPN were yet not available.
Cable news saw an uptick, with Fox News notching a 1.6 rating in prime and CNN following with a 1.4.
"As much as we all were concerned it would be too much," said CNN chief Teya Ryan, "the audience clearly didn't think so."
MSNBC scored just about what it does on an average night: an 0.3—tied with CNBC and Headline News in prime.
Small numbers of viewers sampled 9/11-related programming on cable entertainment channels. Two prime time plays of Discovery Channel's fascinating documentary Rebuilding
averaged a 0.8 rating, the same as A&E's Anatomy of Sept. 11.
By the anniversary date, viewers might have had their fill of documentaries. The History Channel notched some ratings above 2.0 on documentaries that started airing the week before,.
Entertaining distractions on cable were a more popular offering Wednesday night. TNT re-aired its Mists of Avalon
miniseries to a 1.4 rating; USA Network attracted a 2.1 rating for the movie Black Dog.
When it was over, news pros were drained; many didn't report to work Thursday until the afternoon. After anchoring much of CNN's coverage on Sept. 11, Aaron Brown returned the next morning to report on the president's speech at the United Nations. Halfway through the program, Brown realized he'd forgotten to shave.