A nightmare came true for television news personnel and viewers Thursday when a man shot himself to death on a freeway overpass--an event broadcast live by several local TV stations and a national cable news network into thousands of homes.
Station sources said that at least KNBC-TV Channel 4 and KTLA-TV Channel 5 had reasonably tight shots as the gunman pulled the trigger. One news executive referred to the image as "horrifying," with a stream of blood pouring from the victim's head.
KCBS-TV Channel 2, KCAL-TV Channel 9 and KTTV-TV Channel 11 were also broadcasting live when the shooting took place.
Channels 5 and 11 had switched from children's programming to cover the incident, which began to unfold about 3:25 p.m.
KTLA stayed on the situation live longer than any of the other local newscasts in its aftermath.
"The last thing we wanted to do was go back into cartoons, as [Channels] 9 and 11 did," KTLA news director Jeff Wald said. "It was just too sharp a turn to make. And this affected tens of thousands of people who were on the freeways during rush hour."
Wald added that his staff was trying to get KTLA's helicopter cameraman to cut away when the shooting took place.
"As we saw him take the gun out of the back [of his truck], we thought, 'We gotta get off of this. Let's cut back to the truck burning.' But it happened so quickly [that] the communication to our helicopter didn't happen in time," Wald said.
NBC-owned Channel 4 ran apologies throughout the afternoon, issuing a statement that said, "We did not anticipate this man's actions in time to cut away, and we deeply regret that any of our viewers saw this tragedy on our air."
In addition, the network's national cable news channel, MSNBC, carried live coverage as well, with viewers catching a glimpse of the shooting before the director could shift away.
A spokeswoman for the low-rated network called the fact that viewers saw the shooting "extremely unfortunate" and said that the channel is "in the process of examining our editorial safeguards to ensure that we do not expose our viewers to this kind of incident again."
Both Channels 4 and 11 gave out phone numbers that viewers could call for counseling. CBS-owned Channel 2 brought a psychologist into the studio, also holding a live discussion regarding such media coverage on its 6:30 p.m. newscast.
Appearing on Channel 2, former KTLA news director Warren Cereghino defended Thursday's telecasts, saying, "When you have two major freeways virtually shut down at rush hour, that's news."
Channel 2 had its helicopter pilot go to a wide shot before the shooting because of the man's erratic behavior.
"We pulled back when he walked over to the overpass ledge, fearing he was going to jump," said news director Larry Perret. "You could see where this thing was going."
Stations said they would refrain from showing the actual shooting again, though they did run videotape of the man getting out of the truck with his clothes on fire before taking his own life.
KABC-TV Channel 7 was "fortunate" to miss the killing, as the station held off switching to live coverage in order to evaluate the situation, said news director Cheryl Fair. The station cut into its programming to notify viewers about possible traffic problems but had returned to "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and was still monitoring events off-screen when the shooting took place.
"We knew the situation was unstable," Fair said, adding that because of the impact on rush-hour traffic the incident was "certainly deserving of special-report status. Thousands of people are affected by that."
KCOP-TV Channel 13 was apparently the only major English-language station in the area that did not interrupt regular programming. At least one Spanish-language station, KVEA Channel 52, covered the shooting.
Despite running disclaimers warning parents about the news special report, both Channels 9 and 11 received what the latter's spokeswoman called "a slew of viewer calls."
"We didn't like them seeing what they saw any more than they did," said a spokeswoman for Channel 11, which apologized to viewers on its 10 p.m. newscast.
A receptionist at Channel 9 estimated that the station received at least 120 calls during the incident, with most asking the station to cut away.
The tendency toward live coverage of breaking stories has resulted in several dangerous experiences being shown, including a recent freeway chase in which a man was thrown from his moving car.
Few incidents, however, have resulted in someone being killed live on air. In 1987, Pennsylvania Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer committed suicide at a news conference that was covered by several local stations.
"This is the danger of live television," Channel 2's Perret said. "You've got to be on your toes, and you have to be ready to pull back immediately."
Times staff writer Paul Brownfield contributed to this story.