Programmers prepare contingency plans

Feb 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

With the buildup of U.S. troops in the Middle East, network news divisions aren’t the only ones planning for what looks like an inevitable war with Iraq.
Entertainment divisions have been discussing contingency plans over the past few weeks and drawing up playbooks in case they have to rearrange their prime-time schedules to accommodate breaking news.
Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning for Fox Broadcasting Co., said Fox has backup programming-mostly repeats of regular series-ready for every night in case portions of a night’s prime-time lineup have to be pre-empted for breaking news.
“Anything that we’re going to put on [as backup] we’ve shown to our standards people to make sure that there’s nothing we’re doing that’s offensive or in poor taste,” he said. Mitch Metcalf, senior VP of program planning and scheduling at NBC, said the network’s schedule won’t change that radically in the event of war-more news would just be added. “The news needs are going to come first, and I would expect extensive news coverage for a period of time,” he said. “We can’t say how long that will be now, whether it’s a day or two days or several days. Then we would shift into a mode where there would be probably news specials. Most of [our] prime-time programming would come back as we currently have it laid out.”
Mr. Metcalf said NBC also always has standby repeat episodes ready to go in case of news pre-emptions.
Live shows such as Fox’s “American Idol” and CBS’s “Star Search” present their own challenges. CBS does has a contingency plan in place in case “Star Search” needs to be pre-empted, said CBS spokesperson Chris Ender, although he wouldn’t discuss specifics. “We always have a contingency plan for a live show,” he said. “We experienced this first hand when we had to postpone the Emmys [after Sept. 11].”
Fox too has thought through plans for its popular hit “American Idol,” Mr. Beckman said. “We have a contingency grid for every possible scenario,” he said. “We have a phone tree set up so if on any given night on a Tuesday or Wednesday something happens, we have almost like a playbook.”
Despite the loss of advertising revenue that occurs when prime-time is pre-empted, all of the networks say it is up to their news departments to decide how long they need to pre-empt programming. “If it’s war, all bets are off,” Mr. Beckman said. “We will be pre-empted for as long as [Fox News chief] Roger Ailes believes we need to be pre-empted.”
Added Mr. Ender: “As a broadcaster you have a responsibility to keep your viewers informed when there is breaking news of national interest, especially when it involves national security. How long you stay with news programming really depends on how events are developing.”
All the networks have been looking at the content of every episode of upcoming shows to make sure there is no material that could be deemed offensive in a war situation. Promotions and the tone of promotions would also be evaluated.