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The State | SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Blazes Bump Regular TV Lineups

Most local stations go to continuous live coverage of the disaster, absorbing big ad losses.

October 30, 2003|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

Regular daytime programming all but disappeared from most local television stations Wednesday, as the magnitude of the devastation caused by the wildfires blazing across Southern California became apparent.

Employing logos such as "Firestorm!" and "Wildfire," KCBS, KCAL, KABC, KNBC and KTTV provided continuous live coverage of the disaster, which surprised them as its fury and destruction got out of control.

When the fires showed no signs of letting up by Wednesday morning, local stations tossed out most of their regular daytime and syndicated programming to devote full attention to the fire, even skipping network morning news shows such as "Today" and "Good Morning America." They dispatched hundreds of reporters and crews to endangered communities and blazing hillsides.

The double-barreled hit of costly coverage and lost revenue as stations drastically curtailed advertising led to what one station executive estimated were losses approaching $1 million.

"The enormity of this story is greater than the '94 earthquake. We made an immediate decision on Monday to make this our top priority. We've been pushing our people very, very hard," said Don Corsini, president and general manager of KCBS and KCAL.

The two stations have sent more than 40 news crews to cover the blazes.

KABC's president and general manager, Arnold J. Kleiner, said his station had begun its nonstop coverage at 4 a.m. Wednesday and had gone all day commercial-free, after running a limited number of ads Tuesday.

In an effort similar to others', KABC sent all of its news reporters, camera crews and trucks and two helicopters into the field.

KNBC's president and general manager, Paula Madison, said all of her station's advertisers had been understanding. "We'll work it out," she said.

"Wearing windbreakers, goggles and face masks, reporters have been filing live reports while squinting or coughing in smoke-filled communities, feeding news back to their home stations while also trying to keep out of harm's way. On Tuesday afternoon, KNBC reporter Chuck Henry and his cameraman, Christopher Li, narrowly escaped when their news van was consumed by flames near Lake Arrowhead.

On Wednesday afternoon, the live coverage was still in full swing, as news helicopters transmitted pictures of homes going up in flames, and of families fleeing their neighborhoods. At KNBC's Burbank studios, medical editor Bruce Hensel was telling viewers in the affected areas to wear particulate masks over their noses and mouths, and not to exercise.

Three local stations stayed with regular programming: KTLA, which is owned by The Times' parent company; KCOP, which is under the same ownership as KTTV; and Univision's Spanish-language KMEX.

"Our audience expects us to be on at a certain time, and I don't feel it serves the public interest to have 10 stations showing the same pictures," KTLA News Director Jeff Wald said Wednesday night.

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Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.

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