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Weathering the Storm - Broadcasting & Cable

Weathering the Storm

TV news operations face enormous obstacles in delivering critical news
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As anchors at WLOX, the ABC affiliate in Biloxi, Miss., delivered the news live on Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, they felt the power of the storm like few others in the media: Winds suddenly ripped the roof off parts of the building.

A foot of rain washed into the hole in the section of roof covering the newsroom. Staffers fled to the second floor and a small studio. Running on generator power, the station managed to continue live coverage, while its Internet access and phone service were cut off. One satellite phone connected the station to the outside.

“It became a struggle between them and the hurricane,” says Jim Keelor, president of WLOX parent Liberty Corp. “It won for a while, but we’re starting to win now.”

Amid one of the largest natural disasters in U.S. history, with several hundred estimated dead in four states and more than 2 million people without electricity, food or water, getting the news out to viewers last week was critical. It was also harder than ever.

Three of the four New Orleans news stations were unable to broadcast, while one Mobile, Ala., outlet was temporarily knocked off the air. Cox Cable and Charter Communications, the region’s major cable systems, lost service to hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Network news crews were frustrated trying to navigate an unfamiliar region with spotty communications. And already the storm has altered Nielsen ratings in at least four markets for the foreseeable future.

In Biloxi, WLOX will need to rebuild its facility and replace two regional bureaus that were wiped out. For the rest of the area, the cost of the cleanup and relocation of storm refugees is impossible to pinpoint, but local media companies are certain to spend tens of millions of dollars digging out (see Money Talks, page 10). Aside from such costs, the storm leaves sobering lessons for stations and cable operators across the U.S. about planning for such events as natural disaster or terrorism.

As the disaster continues to unfold, the Internet (and radio) are proving to be crucial sources of information. Bloggers are trading images and updates to info-starved surfers. But what has become quickly apparent is that only the graphic images of television can convey the scope and devastation of such a catastrophe.

No one has told the stories better than local TV reporters, many of whom lost their homes and brought their hometown expertise to the hurricane coverage. In New Orleans in particular, reporters have been bracing for years for such a catastrophic storm to overwhelm the levee system, which eventually broke and flooded the city. “The national media didn’t understand the gravity of it,” says David Bernard, former meteorologist for WWL New Orleans and now at WFOR Miami, who raced back to report from his former hometown. “We knew what the consequences would be.”

Stations on the Gulf Coast have been tested by damaging storms recently, notably Hurricane Ivan last year and Dennis in July. In those cases, local outlets lost power but still managed to broadcast days of wall-to-wall coverage. Despite the best preparations, Hurricane Katrina proved devastating. New Orleans stations were forced to evacuate to sister stations. A few that stayed behind narrowly escaped being trapped. Helicopters plucked several WDSU employees off a hotel roof, and KTLA Los Angeles technology reporter Kurt Knutsson, in town working on another story, also evacuated. A skeleton crew at WWL was forced out as water started seeping into the building.

Based on experience, local media found ways to keep going. WWL, the top-rated local news station, resorted to broadcasting from student TV studios at Louisiana State University in nearby Baton Rouge and from a small emergency outfit at its transmitter site. Remarkably, even as 135-mile-per-hour winds lashed the Big Easy, WWL never lost its signal. Three years ago, when the station built a new tower, it selected a higher point in New Orleans, in part to keep its equipment safe in case of such a disaster. There is no telling when the station will be able to get back into its French Quarter headquarters.

“This one is going to be longer, harder and tougher than what anyone anticipated,” says Jack Sander, president of media operations for WWL parent Belo.

WWL is Belo’s only station in the area, but other broadcast groups were harder hit. Liberty Corp., Hearst-Argyle, Emmis and Tribune own two stations each in the region. Their New Orleans affiliates suffered severe damage: Hearst-Argyle-owned NBC affiliate WDSU, Emmis’ Fox station WVUE, and Tribune’s ABC outlet WGNO and WB affiliate WNOL were all knocked off the air and their staffers were evacuated.

Several parent companies, including Media General and Tribune Broadcasting, are using RVs to house crews in the field. Even the best preparations were sometimes futile. In Mobile, WPMI fired up its generator when the power failed but was knocked off the air when lightning struck the generator. For a day, the Clear Channel-owned station reported via its sister radio stations until a new generator arrived and TV broadcasts were resumed.

“The roughest situation ever seen”

Those companies—and the national networks—have ferried in extra producers, satellite trucks and supplies, in several cases by charter plane. In the hardest hit locations, crews have only satellite phones and sporadic Blackberry service for communicating, and limited food, water and fuel. Helicopters from as far away as San Antonio are on the scene supplying pictures. WLOX had no way to update its Web site, so producers at the Liberty station in Louisville, Ky., took over postings. Hearst-Argyle’s WESH Orlando, Fla., and WAPT Jackson, Miss., helped WDSU stream live coverage and update its Web site. “We all get credit for helping to evacuate the market and keep casualties even lower,” says Hearst-Argyle Senior VP of News Fred Young, “but this is the roughest situation anyone’s ever seen.”

Even if viewers in affected areas can eventually watch TV to get news, no one is monitoring the audience levels. Nielsen Media Research is not reporting ratings from set-top meters in New Orleans and Birmingham, Ala., because of power outages. New Orleans may not be restored for months, the ratings firm says.

New Orleans ranks as the 43rd-largest U.S. market and accounts for 675,760 TV homes. Combine that with three other affected markets in the region, and more than 1.1 million TV households have been impacted, which represents about a full rating point nationally. After last year’s hurricanes in Florida, Nielsen had to recruit new participants and will likely face the same problem in these Gulf Coast markets.

Without a traditional TV audience, news organizations resorted to new and old technology to get the news out. Radio stations in each market have simulcast the TV coverage, enabling residents with battery-powered radios to listen to local TV news. Several stations have been streaming their broadcasts live online and blogging.

In some cases, local news went far beyond usual boundaries. WJTV, the CBS affiliate in Jackson, Miss., streamed its coverage live to a global audience. “We’ve heard from soldiers in Iraq who are Mississippi reservists watching our Webcasts and a woman in Peru whose sister lives in Madison, Miss.,” says News Director Rick Russell.

Web traffic soared for national and local sites. CNN and MSNBC recorded about 9 million video plays in one day, records for each. On Aug. 30, WWL recorded more traffic on its Web site than it averages for an entire month. In Mobile, WPMI anchor Scott Walker has been blogging the storm and says his blog recorded more than 2,500 hits, versus his usual 100 daily hits.

Across the region, national TV crews are working under equally trying conditions.

“It looks like a war zone,” says Jeff Raineri, a meteorologist for NBC’s local weather service Weather Plus, reporting from Biloxi for NBC News. “Brick homes were blown away, and casinos floating in the water were carried hundreds of feet inland.”

CNN’s Anderson Cooper, stationed in Mississippi and Louisiana last week, says the devastation surpassed any hurricane he had covered: “It compares to the tsunami in Sri Lanka and some of the things I saw in Sarajevo during the [Balkans] war. It is not a reference point that the U.S. has seen before.”

The images out of New Orleans seemed surreal even to jaded TV news reporters. In New Orleans, gunfire and fights broke out at the Superdome, where thousands of refugees baked in the heat. Looting and random gunfire created a lawless environment. Some news crews traveled with armed guards; others abandoned scenes that got too dangerous.

“Apart from 9/11, this is one of the most astounding events ever to hit our country,” said CNN’s Jeanne Meserve, who described seeing bodies floating through the streets and dogs wrapped in electrical cords. NBC’s Martin Savidge tried to convey the desperation in the Superdome: “The air has gone bad, the toilets are overflowing, tensions are rising among rival gang members inside,” he said. “Things are so bad, state officials are now evacuating the evacuees.”

Some of the biggest network stars raced to the scene. Brian Williams anchored The NBC Nightly News from New Orleans. ABC News’ Elizabeth Vargas was part of the network’s large contingent and anchored World News Tonight from battered Gulfport, Miss. CBS News dispatched John Roberts and Harry Smith to the region.

“This story is getting bigger and bigger,” says Marcy McGinnis, CBS senior VP of newsgathering. TV news outlets say they are prepared to have crews in place for weeks, if not months.

Maintaining exhaustive coverage will surely stress budgets at stations and national media. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina resembles coverage for a war or after 9/11. News organizations will have to rotate in crews from bureaus—and even stations in other states—to pitch in, stressing already stretched news budgets. Salvaging damaged equipment and buildings will take time and cost millions of dollars. Affected cable operators face lost revenue from displaced subscribers.

But viewers are hungry for the information. Ratings for cable coverage and network news specials have surged. The Weather Channel tripled its usual audience, averaging more than 1 million viewers in prime on nights after the storm. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC’s audience swelled. For the first time in a while, CNN came close to matching Fox News’ ratings in the key 25-54 demographic, according to Nielsen data. Prime time specials on ABC, CBS and NBC attracted better ratings than a typical edition.

Almost everyone agrees it will be months before life returns to normal. Some station employees learned that they had lost their homes from aerial coverage. When Bill Flowers, who owns a traffic-reporting service in Mobile, went up in his plane the day after the storm, his friend, local Fox anchor John Edd Thompson, asked Flowers to check out the damage to his coastal home.

He brought the footage to the station and showed it live. Thompson cried at the images. Says Flowers, “All that was sticking up was a few pilings.”

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