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Events Rewrite the Networks' Scripts for News Coverage

March 23, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It's been said that in war, the first thing to go is the battle plan. So it has been for television networks in the first days of the war with Iraq as their carefully laid plans for covering the U.S.-led attack gave way in the face of hostilities that unfolded very differently than they had expected.

With months of buildup to the war, the networks had their reporters and costly high-tech cameras and satellite phones in place, as well as plans to switch to continuous ad-free coverage of the fighting as soon as the first bombs fell.

But those initial missiles, just after 6:30 p.m. PST on Wednesday, turned out to be surgical strikes aimed at Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, so brief that 90 minutes later, network producers decided to wrap up and let their East Coast stations air local news. Thursday morning, both cable and broadcast networks were back to airing commercials -- and a report about colon cancer on the "Today" show -- between the war updates. Thursday afternoon, it was back to ad-free war coverage when it looked as if the bombing was starting in earnest. It wasn't, so CBS proceeded Thursday evening with NCAA basketball and NBC aired two hours of sitcoms, while ABC continued straight through with news. On Friday, CBS launched into basketball again, only to dump out when a barrage of bombs began raining on Baghdad.

By Saturday, commercials again crept back in, and the broadcast networks soon returned to regularly scheduled cartoons or sports.

"It did not play out as we expected, which makes the judgments on all sides a little harder to make," said Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News.

"In the words of [Gen.] Tommy Franks, 'We're flexible,' " said NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. "We have to make decisions on the fly."

The factors that go into the decisions are multiple and contradictory. Viewers expect networks to be there the moment news happens and will sometimes accuse networks of being unpatriotic if they aren't. News divisions that have spent tens of millions of dollars to send dozens of reporters overseas want to get their reporting on the air.

If a network goes to a commercial, it could miss something. Some advertisers don't want to be associated with gory images. But the coverage must be paid for, so there's pressure to run ads, as well as, in CBS' case, pressure to run one-time-only basketball games.

Too much news can bore viewers, if there are no real developments, and they will search out entertainment elsewhere; too much entertainment will send viewers to all-news cable.

Consequences of making a wrong call can have a lasting effect. "The cost of getting beaten on this story can be catastrophic," Shapiro said. "Viewers expect you to be there, promptly, that you can be relied upon." He compared the challenge to "final exams, except you never know when the next test is."

So on Saturday afternoon, CBS was crowing that it cut away from basketball and beat the competition -- even all-news CNN -- with the first on-the-scene reports from the attacks on the U.S. 101st Airborne Division in northern Kuwait.

The push-pull began Wednesday night. Networks, like other news organizations, had been given early guidance that nothing was likely to happen, despite a deadline for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to leave.

Brokaw wrapped up a live "Dateline" at 9 p.m. EST and decided to hang out an hour, not expecting much. Then he heard from the White House reporter that "there wasn't a lid on" -- meaning it wasn't shut down for the night -- "and that set off all alarms with me," Brokaw said. Other hints came in and "we started putting everything in motion to get me on air."

But, he said, "the tricky piece is you don't want to go on air and sound a false alarm," and there's also a concern that the network could go on "too much in advance of military activity, knowing we're monitored by the Iraqi authorities."

Still, he said, "We triangulated all our sources," and ended up at the "right place at the right time," getting on first with the story, just as air raid sirens sounded in Baghdad.

It was a different story at ABC News, which has been embarrassed due to a series of miscues in the war's initial moments. The network was a crucial 10 minutes behind NBC in getting on the air Wednesday night and even then had to wait a few minutes for anchor Peter Jennings to get into place. Later that night, ABC added to its problems by abruptly ending its war coverage, leaving some affiliates scrambling to get local news on the air.

At NBC, the intricate high-stakes dance of what to show, and when and how, plays out on the third floor of NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters in Manhattan (an arrangement that is more or less repeated at ABC News and CBS News). At one end of the floor, three dozen producers, directors and executives are packed in a buzzing, darkened control room, monitoring rows and rows of TV screens, whose video they can choose from for their broadcast.

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