Stations start to regroup after attack

Sep 24, 2001  •  Post A Comment

With no roadmap, no precedents and no glimmer of light at the end of any tunnel, the television industry, like the nation, put one foot in front of the other last week as it tried to balance the needs of commerce and community.
Networks dusted off their insurance policies to see whether they were covered on any of their advertising-revenue losses from five days of commercial-free, ’round-the-clock coverage of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the four hijacked airliners.
Networks and all-news channels, which had been on a perpetual search for efficiencies before Sept. 11, barely had time to take a deep breath before they began rigging themselves for a story that was moving overseas and would require 24/7 news gathering and news watches.
At stations, the list of advertisers that hadn’t canceled or cut back their advertising commitments was shorter than the list of those that had, said one group executive.
While more than one station executive predicted that 70 percent to 80 percent of the business canceled the week of the attack would be made up by year-end, they were disappointed that even advertisers that had returned to the air the weekend after the attack were scaling back on their buys well into the fourth quarter.
“We’re taking a double hit,” said Philip Lombardo, president of Citadel Communications. “We’re getting cancellations around the horn.”
Like many groups, Mr. Lombardo’s Citadel is staying the course on spending: “We’ve embarked on a major upgrade of all our news operations and we have no intentions of pulling back, because this is our future,” he said.
Unlike other groups, Citadel may have the luxury of sticking to that plan. “Fortunately, I am an underleveraged private company,” he said.
Tribune Television President Pat Mullen described the short-term impact as “significant.”
Tribune’s WPIX-TV in New York is one of the stations that suffered fatalities and loss of main transmitters in the collapse of the first World Trade Center tower. Except for WCBS-TV, whose primary transmitter was on the Empire State Building, all of New York’s English-language stations will have to rebuild their transmitters. In the interim, all are using low- or medium-power stations or hastily purchased equipment.
One New York television executive described the signal challenges in the early days after the terrorist attack as “a triage situation.”
Last Thursday night, WABC-TV, New York, anchors were explaining to viewers how to turn rooftop antennas toward Alpine, N.J., to “see Channel 7 and other local stations.”
Now the New York stations, whose digital signals have been uninterrupted, must decide where to position permanent primary transmitters. Space and options are limited at the Empire State Building, which is 500 feet shorter than the Trade Center was, a situation that could translate into the loss of tens of thousands of viewers.
“We’re working with the other stations to try to get a permanent solution and a more normal situation,” said Jay Ireland, president of NBC Television Stations.
If the fiscal, physical and emotional toll was most concentrated in New York and Washington, it was felt throughout the country.
Nationwide, stations launched extensive public service and fund-raising campaigns for the relief efforts, and the networks rushed new public service announcements into production and on the air.
NBC, whose parent General Electric Co. had contributed $10 million to the families of rescue workers, put a rush on “The More You Know” PSAs focusing on intolerance and prejudice, getting the first new spots on the air the weekend after the attack.
CBS filmed and made available to the entire industry three new PSAs focusing on the Red Cross, which was leading the call for blood donors. Like other broadcasters, the network “seized on” the opportunity to fill out commercial pods with PSAs, said Marty Franks, executive vice president, CBS Television, and senior vice president, Viacom.
CBS’s parent Viacom instituted a corporate matching fund-raising program; enlisted its celebrities for some volunteer efforts; offered its own technical equipment, personnel and temporary office space to the relief efforts; and has begun developing programming that aims to explain the terrorist attack to young audiences.
ABC was readying PSAs focused on what a spokeswoman described as “organizations so important to the relief effort.” The ABC-owned stations, like other station groups, ran tickers with local relief and fund-raising and blood-donor efforts. WTVD-TV in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., for example, helped firefighters organize a 22-county fund-raising blitz by which more than $1 million was collected.
The Tribune Co.’s newspapers, TV stations and Web sites spearheaded a national disaster-relief fund to which the McCormick Tribune Foundation pledged $2.5 million in matching funds.
Hearst-Argyle Television commissioned a song and whipped together spots that were to be in the hands of all 27 stations it owns or manages and that would focus on sympathy for the victims of the terrorists, on concern for the communities and on pride in country,” said Frank Biancuzzo, marketing and promotions vice president. The song is titled “America Unites” but was designed to be customized for local markets.
“This is not a political statement. This is not editorializing,” Mr. Biancuzzo said. “We reflect what America’s mood and tone is.”
Most of the Hearst-Argyle stations quickly started fund-raising, sometimes with local partners, and by late last week had raised more than $15 million, Mr. Biancuzzo said.
Other groups that committed everything from on-air counseling to programming and fund-raising efforts are Emmis Communications, which owns 23 radio stations and 15 TV stations. Emmis established a relief fund. In Green Bay, Wis., WLUK-TV helped raise $192,000 in one day. In Omaha, Neb., KMTV-TV helped collect $200,000. In Tucson, Ariz., retirees showed up with $11,500 in cash in response to KGUN-TV’s call for donations to the Red Cross.
Citadel has only four stations, but the group had raised some $300,000 by the Sunday after the attack, Mr. Lombardo said. He also said his salespeople didn’t just sit on their hands during the days when it was inappropriate to sell. They updated the stations’ Web sites, which gave some relief to the news staffs that were so busy keeping up with the rapidly unfolding story.
“Individual stations are out there making things happen in their communities,” said Cullie Tarleton, the senior vice president of television and cable for Bahakel Communications, which is headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., a major hub for U.S. Airways.“All we can do is take it a day at a time and try to be good businessmen and businesswomen. We’re sailing in uncharted waters.”
Roger Domal, vice president of Eastern sales for Fox News Channel, spoke of the need to “be as accommodating as possible” to advertisers, who are seeing their revenues and projections drop. He said there is no discounting being done.
“The revenue that we derive from commercials [is] secondary to getting the story,” Mr. Domal said.
“Right now our first priority is simply to keep the public informed,” Tribune’s Mr. Mullen said. “We’re not focused on the financial implications at this point.”
Tony Vinciquerra, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Hearst-Argyle, said, “We’re focused on making sure that our stations are providing the best information on what’s developing. And while we are doing that we want to focus on our communities.”