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TV AND THE GULF WAR : Gulf War Sandwiched Between Soaps, Games : Television: Tel Aviv comes under attack, and the networks vie in a battle of surmises. Israel briefly pulls plug on NBC for its comment on casualties.

January 23, 1991|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Daytime television, 1991-style: Games, soaps and war.

Tuesday, 10:35 a.m. The day's clash of Titans begins with CNN's Richard Blystone reporting from Tel Aviv: "I have just seen a light in the sky, and I don't know what it is. I hear the sound of aircraft," he adds, "and I have seen missiles being launched."

Soon CNN's Greg Lefevre is on the air from Jerusalem, saying Israel Radio has reported "some kind of missile attack."

ABC's John Donvan echoes that in a report from Tel Aviv that briefly interrupts "Home."

At 10:50, CBS breaks into "The Price is Right" to announce sirens in Tel Aviv. And soon NBC briefly preempts "To Tell the Truth" to report two U.S. Patriot missiles being launched from Tel Aviv.

Thus, all four networks have now entered the fray.

Now CNN reports that "three missiles have hit Tel Aviv, and one hit an apartment building."

Now ABC says it cannot confirm a single hit.

But now CBS, quoting a European broadcasting source, says "at least one missile" has hit Tel Aviv.

An obvious stalemate.

But no! It's 11:15 when NBC strikes hard at ABC, CBS and CNN by slicing into "Wheel of Fortune" with Martin Fletcher's jolting live audio report from Tel Aviv: "I'm standing on the edge of a crater . . . three blocks smashed . . . reminds me of World War II . . . just has to be a lot injuries . . . ambulances . . . they're pulling out a wounded man from a house . . . oh, he's in a bad way."

Fletcher's mention of casualties violates Israeli censorship, prompting the Israelis to shut down NBC's satellite for two hours later in the day.

Ten minutes later, meanwhile, CNN's Richard Roth reports from Tel Aviv that Israeli radio says two missiles have hit Tel Aviv, but that he can't confirm any damage. "There might be some," he adds, even though NBC's Fletcher has already seen the extensive damage.

At 11:30, CNN is still not confirming.

At 11:39, a whopping 24 minutes after Fletcher's report from the damage scene, CNN anchor Ralph Wenge sounds apologetic. "We're still trying to get information if there was any damage in Tel Aviv."

A minute later, ABC reports that "at least one Scud or at least something has fallen on Tel Aviv." And ABC's Donvan, an Israeli censor at his side, says he's unable to mention anything about possible damage. Then ABC returns to "Loving."

At 11:41, CBS reports a "fairly substantial hit" in Tel Aviv. Then CBS returns to "The Young and the Restless."

CNN is still not confirming, engaged instead in a generic discussion on the theory of bomb damage.

There's a lull. Then at 11:52, NBC strikes again, without warning, blasting into "Generations" with first pictures from the chaotic damage site, Israeli-cleared footage of mass casualties and destruction that NBC is able to transmit immediately only because it happens to have satellite time at the moment.

NBC follows this with Fletcher's live talk with Israeli Health Minister Ehud Olmert about the terrible carnage. Simultaneously, CNN's Wenge finally confirms a missile hit in Tel Aviv, but adds: "We still don't know if there has been any damage." The damage that Fletcher and the Israeli minister are now discussing.

At 12:07, CNN belatedly confirms that "houses have been damaged." Then Wenge, obliquely conceding CNN's trailing position, charges Israeli censors with apparently holding CNN "to a different standard, because CNN is being seen worldwide, and others (networks) are not."

And then, in a desperate counterattack by a beaten foe, CNN finally airs its own "apparently first pictures" from the damage site, those "first pictures" coming a minute after CBS damage footage and 26 minutes after those initial pictures from NBC.

Ten minutes later, ABC finally limps in, airing damage pictures it later says were delayed by Israeli censors.

The skirmish has been only a blip in a much wider Persian Gulf conflict, but the kind TV warriors fight regularly--one where victories and defeats are measured in minutes instead of bodies.

This time, NBC has won decisively, but today is another day.

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