Adjusting to Costs of War

Apr 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Three weeks after CBS News bosses ordered her out for her own safety, correspondent Lara Logan, sans camera crew, slipped back into Baghdad, settled into familiar digs at the Palestine Hotel and prepared to resume reporting from the Iraqi capital, now ringed by coalition forces and the journalists embedded with them.
Back home, news executives nervously waited to see whether an end to the war was in sight as their costs continued to rise. They are already beginning to make manpower adjustments that will reduce the media presence in such staging areas as Kuwait City, Israel and Northern Iraq and on military ships, while shifting some resources to Ramstein, Germany, where military casualties usually are sent first on their journey home.
While remaining committed to ongoing coverage, corporate news bosses are hoping they have seen the worst of the financial impact of this most unprecedented and unpredictable war.
Most networks refused to discuss the cumulative cost of coverage and pre-emptions of entertainment programming. However, the chief financial officer of General Electric, the parent company of NBC and MSNBC, said pretax profits have been reduced by some $50 million. Still, CFO Keith Sherin told investors and analysts last week that NBC can expect a 10 percent increase in operating profit in 2003.
A spokesman for News Corp., the parent company of Fox Broadcasting and Fox News Channel, said the impact “hasn’t been as great as expected.”
For the broadcast networks, it is largely programming as usual. For the cable news networks, programming is and will remain-at least for the short term-a 24/7 operation, but with lower-than-usual commercial inventory.
A spokesperson for MSNBC said commercial inventory in prime time is at about 70 percent of prewar levels. (The daytime load remains lighter because of military and White House briefings and fast-breaking press conferences.) A spokesman for Turner Broadcasting said CNN’s commercial load is at approximately 50 percent, depending on any given day’s events. A spokesman for Fox News Channel declined to comment.
Advertisers are getting a bonus because their spots are being seen by far more people than they paid for. As of last Wednesday ratings leader Fox was averaging a 237 percent increase in viewership over the first quarter, compared with its totals before the start of the war. CNN ratings were running 316 percent higher. MSNBC was up 361 percent.
“Anybody who had make-good issues won’t have them, because everybody is over-delivering,” said one TV news source.
On the broadcast side, increases were less uniform but no less significant. ABC’s Good Morning America racked up its highest viewership in 10 years in the first quarter, and the network has just extended its special weekend edition. CBS’s Face the Nation had its best quarter since 1994. NBC’s Meet the Press notched its most-watched quarter in the 16-year history of People Meters.
In Iraq, Ms. Logan’s reappearance in Baghdad did not mean all U.S.-based news organizations felt free to return. They were especially reluctant to re-enter the city if their people had been ejected, as were CNN correspondent Nic Robertson and his crew of three in the first days of the war.
At about the time Ms. Logan and her small convoy of Portuguese TV and CBC journalists were pulling into Baghdad, CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod was reporting to The Early Show audience that the 3rd Infantry Division, with which he is embedded, had secured Saddam International Airport and renamed it Baghdad International Airport.
With troops massing outside Iraq’s capital, there were questions of what American viewers, who have already witnessed battles and the dangers of combat, would see next. Mr. Axelrod told TelevisionWeek he didn’t know what the immediate future held, but felt he and his crew were in good hands. “The military has always kept us safe, and to the extent that anyone in a war can be safe, I think the military will continue to keep us safe.”
News executives-at least one of whom had a correspondent poised at the Jordan border ready to return to Baghdad when it was deemed safe-reiterated their trust that their staffers in the war zone would exercise common sense and stay alert. “When there is a lull in the action, that’s when they get tired,” said CBS News executive Marcy McGinnis.
The executives also fielded a new round of questions about whether the battle for Baghdad, which may include door-to-door fighting, might mean increased chances of viewers seeing graphic images live. “There is absolutely no playbook for this kind of thing,” said MSNBC news executive Mark Effron. “Any media executive who tells you they have the rulebook down is blowing smoke.”
That being the case, Mr. Effron said, “We don’t want to show if somebody is going to get shot. We will try not to show that. We will employ our best judgment, to the best of our ability, for that not to happen.”