To cut in or not to cut in. . . .
That is a question that news directors and stations managers often must answer as important news breaks during network series or local programming. But there are signs that the practice is gaining acceptance even in non-urgent or questionable situations.
KTLA Channel 5, for example, after touting its uncut airing of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" Feb. 18, began its "News at 10" broadcast while the Oscar-winning film's credits rolled. A large portion of the credits were compressed into a digital effects box on screen as anchorman Hal Fishman read the top headlines.
On Feb. 11, during the NBC broadcast of "Remington Steele," KNBC Channel 4 interrupted the show for about 37 seconds while it aired a live transmission from Ontario, where the rescue of two men trapped in a light plane tangled in high-voltage lines was in progress. But due to technical difficulties, there was no audio portion and "Remington Steele" quickly returned.
A few days later, local "Dallas" fans waiting to see if Pam Ewing would be rescued from kidnapers, instead saw a 56-second weather update on KCBS Channel 2 by Kevin O'Connell. When "Dallas" returned, Pam inexplicably was in the arms of her boyfriend.
The latter incident illustrates the chain of events by which programming is interrupted for local news. Early in the evening on Friday, Feb. 14, the National Weather Service was predicting moderate rainfall. But according to Andi Sporkin, director of press information for KCBS, that prediction changed substantially by 9:30 p.m., when the weather service issued "a flash flood warning for a major percentage of counties in our viewing area."
The next available time for a "news cut" was 10:30 p.m., when the local news has about 60 seconds to update major headlines. Sporkin said, "The feeling was, this impacted so many people we had to cut in as soon as possible."
The executive producer of the 11 p.m. news, Joe Kolina, paged news director Erik Sorenson, who in turn contacted general manager Frank Gardner for the final approval.
At that point, Sporkin said, the weather update was broadcast as soon as the cameramen and O'Connell could get in place. The plot line of the show in progress was barely a consideration. The interruption took place at 9:39 and just happened to coincide with Pam's rescue.
Neither of Los Angeles' other two network-owned stations, KABC and KNBC, considered it necessary to interrupt programming for the weather update, however, which suggests that there is a gray area in deciding the urgency of news. KCBS' attitude, Sporkin said, was that "we're licensed to serve the public and serving the public is telling them their cars are floating away."
She added that KCBS did not intentionally avoid cutting into a commercial--which might have made viewers happier. That, too, occasionally happens, she said. When it does, the station has to reimburse advertisers with commercial time of equivalent value, called "make-goods."
At KNBC, the technological glitch from Ontario on Feb. 11 made the interruption of "Remington Steele" shorter and perhaps more annoying than was meant to be.
But later that night the station broke into the network's "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" three times, the last for nearly 10 minutes as the rescue operation was completed.
Does the rescue of two men warrant unscheduled news time?
KNBC general manager John Rohrbeck believed it did. "It was an event that was happening right then, and one which we had been carrying coverage of in the news," he said. "To not show the conclusion would have in itself been irresponsible."
Other L.A. stations clearly agreed. KCBS ran its 11 p.m. news an extra half-hour to follow the Ontario rescue and KTLA devoted two full hours to the incident, from 10 p.m. to midnight. Viewers apparently approved; from 11 to 11:30 p.m., KTLA's ratings tied for first place with KABC's.
A week later, news and entertainment were again in a tug-of-war at KTLA. Because it aired "Cuckoo's Nest" uncut the station had to start its 10 p.m. news about 12 minutes late. That's why much of the credits wound up sharing the screen with Hal Fishman.
"Something had to give to get into the news as quickly as possible," said general manager Steve Bell, who acknowledged that the credits were virtually unreadable while in a box on the left side of the screen. "We learned something," he added. "We would certainly do it again, but we would open a bigger box."