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TV strives to not overdo coverage of rites, tributes

June 09, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As TV networks clear their schedules to pay respect to Ronald Reagan, news producers find themselves grappling with a new problem: how to fill airtime until the Friday funeral without hitting overload.

"I don't remember another memorial event that lasted this long, and, frankly, we're still sorting out how we're going to do it," said CNN anchor Judy Woodruff.

"It's an interesting challenge to cover it respectfully without being over the top," said Tom Touchet, executive producer of "Today," which bumped an O.J. Simpson interview on Monday for fear of appearing disrespectful to the late president, who died Saturday.

The arrival of Reagan's coffin in Washington this afternoon and its transport by horse-drawn caisson to the U.S. Capitol is tailor-made for television. So too will be the dignitary-laden state funeral Friday at the National Cathedral. Cable and broadcast news will carry extended coverage of each event.

Monday, when the coffin was taken by motorcade to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, TV producers were surprised when a brief service for the family was unexpectedly opened to TV cameras. Networks that had planned to cut away stayed with the scene, as former First Lady Nancy Reagan briefly laid her cheek on the flag-draped coffin.

Thursday, when Reagan's body will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, poses a trickier problem. "That's why the bookers are working overtime," said Jerry Burke, executive producer of daytime programming for Fox News Channel. "We don't want to have the same faces. But then again, the man lived to his 90s, so there are 10 decades of people to be chasing."

Political pundits and Reagan biographers already have held forth for several days on the 40th president's life and legacy. Producers said Tuesday they were turning to people who knew him in a more limited capacity: his personal photographer, the woman in Philadelphia who was his pen pal.

"It's like throwing a rock into the pool, and the ripples spread out," said Burke. "As the week goes on, you start to see people from the outer rings of his life."

The chase was also on for an interview with former President Carter, whose loss to Reagan in 1980 ended his public political career. As of Tuesday afternoon, Carter hadn't given any interviews on Reagan's death. "I would love to hear from him," said Woodruff.

Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University, said he was prepared for the onslaught of coverage. "They had many years to prepare for what they knew was to come -- the networks, Nancy Reagan, Reagan's people, the government."

"Overkill's the norm," he said, particularly with cable news. "It's wall to wall. That's what I would expect. Not only is there the importance of a president's passing, but Reagan is seen as an extraordinarily popular figure. So it's a way of connecting with the audience as well as [fulfilling] public service obligations of covering a news event."

But particularly in an era of 24-hour news, there's only so much to be said about a life, no matter how long or how important. So networks also were branching out to stories about security in Washington for the funeral, and using Reagan's death to look at Alzheimer's disease, from which he suffered. "Today," for one, cautiously began looking at other topics altogether, including airing the delayed report on Simpson.

Few producers, however, were worried about excess coverage of a serious news story like Reagan's death -- particularly since most had been facing a week's coverage of the 10-year anniversary of Nicole Brown Simpson's murder and the start of the Laci Peterson murder trial. "We are living as much the Reagan worldview as any other president post-Roosevelt," said Paul Slavin, senior vice president for ABC News. "There are so many ways to look at this story beyond the obvious pomp and circumstance, the grieving and mourning."

Woodruff said she had one fear, "What are we going to be saying by Friday? But on the other hand there are so many facets to his life."

Moreover, what's overdone to journalists, whose TVs never get turned off, doesn't necessarily seem that way to the average viewer, said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage for CBS News. "Today I saw one piece [on air] that I had already seen twice, but I bet the viewer hadn't. There's no viewer sitting in their living room watching every single broadcast CBS does. We may say, 'Is it stale? Have we seen too much?' But viewers watch in and out. They don't sit there for four hours."

News of Reagan's death at about 1:45 p.m. Pacific time Saturday, caused a big spike in cable audiences. Combined, Fox, CNN and MSNBC averaged 3.48 million viewers from 1:45 to 9 p.m., compared with 1.5 million for the same time period in May.

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