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Blackout Reveals Weak Spots in News Ops’ Preparedness

Aug 25, 2003  •  Post A Comment

At 4:11 p.m. Aug. 14 Gabe Pressman was driving through Central Park toward upstate New York for a vacation when the city’s lights went out. Within the hour, the veteran reporter was on the balcony of the sixth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, reporting live for NBC-owned station WNBC-TV on the blackout.
Mr. Pressman’s response was in many ways typical of TV station staffers who were affected professionally and personally by the East Coast blackout-reporters came in from vacation, journalists worked around the clock and anchors sweated on-air.
Despite sparse audiences, stations in New York, Detroit, Cleveland and other markets impacted by the blackout switched to backup power almost immediately, dove into continuous coverage and lost, in most cases, nearly a day’s worth of advertising.
While backup generators powered mission-critical systems such as newsroom computer systems and master control, some of the toughest challenges were in the basic survival areas: procuring enough fuel for news trucks and generators and sufficient food and water for the journalists and staffers.
Most of the stations affected are assessing their emergency plans to evaluate what worked and what didn’t.
CBS-owned WCBS-TV in New York carried wall-to-wall coverage from about 4:30 p.m. Thursday until 2 p.m. Friday. The backup generator didn’t have enough oomph to power the studio, so the station used a newsroom set and rigged together minimal lights, news director Dianne Doctor said.
“We had fans in the newsroom, so you could hear those [during the broadcasts],” she said.
As WCBS reviews its emergency plans, it will look at getting full backup power to the newsroom, she said.
Smooth Operation
The station’s post-9/11 emergency plan went smoothly, though. It detailed exactly where reporters were to go in such crises and the roles of news executives and producers. “When power went out, people naturally jumped into those roles,” she said.
Part of that plan involved the use of an old two-way radio system to communicate and home video cameras for journalists to cover the events.
To keep the staffers and trucks going, the station’s food reporter, Tony Tantillo, tracked down a pizza place that could deliver, and Jonathan Weiss, a writer, convinced the Home Depot in his neighborhood to open and sell him flashlights and fuel cans, which he filled with gasoline to operate the satellite trucks.
With power out in most of the viewing area, the station did not have a big audience. Still, pockets of New Jersey were able to see the coverage and some radio stations picked up the feed.
Rival station WNBC also kicked into emergency mode immediately and broadcast continuously throughout the night, with a break from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. for network coverage.
The traffic department stayed overnight to reprogram the shows and commercials, and Chief Engineer Matt Braatz trekked up and down the stairs to the 65th floor several times to manually adjust the microwave dishes, said Frank Comerford, president and general manager of the station.
The station lost about $1 million in advertising due to the commercial-free coverage. It will work with each advertiser to offer make-goods or return the money. “No matter what you do, we lose because you have that much time go by without any advertising,” he said. “But it’s our job to provide information to the public. That comes first.”
The station will conduct post-mortems with each department, Mr. Comerford said. “I know now to go to the food commissary and buy up all the food,” he said.
Betty Ellen Berlamino, general manager of New York Tribune-owned WB affiliate WPIX-TV, said her station bought out the food supply from the deli in the building when it opened at 6 a.m. Friday. Perhaps even more pressing, though, was the need to connect the coffee pot into the emergency generator shortly after the power went out. “We had one coffee pot for the entire station and assigned people to keep it going,” she said.
In the future, she’d like more flashlights and good food on hand. “NutriGrain bars don’t keep us going,” she said.
Dave Manney, assistant news director at Scripps-Howard-owned ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV in Detroit, also made food a priority. He sent two staffers on a food hunt with his credit card and some petty cash and instructed them to buy $1,000 worth of water and $500 in food. They were able to procure $300 in water and $100 in food, a stash that was gone when the sun came up Friday morning. That indicates the need to have a clear plan for the future, he said.
“I don’t know that I need an emergency store of food and water squirreled away in the back of the building … but I think it’s always good to know where you are going to get it,” he said.
Going to the Well
General Manager Grace Gilchrist said she may include a water well, at about $10,000, in her capital plan for next year. The station is located on an old farm, and a well would provide a safe supply of water, she said.
Another issue was fuel for about 15 trucks. As gas ran out in the satellite trucks, the station siphoned gas from vehicles that were not being used to fill the tanks of those it needed until it was able to order a tanker for Friday morning.
Mr. Manney said WXYZ will buy and install a fuel tank on the premises for future emergencies.
In addition to basic needs, WXYZ got creative with its microwave capability during the blackout. Since the power was out across the city, most of the receiving sites were down. The station bounced microwave signals off the helicopter to relay them back to the station. “We were literally flying the chopper over the reporters,” Mr. Manney said.
Ms. Gilchrist said the station lost about $300,000 in advertising, but she has not yet tallied the additional costs in overtime, expenses, gasoline and extra equipment. The station will try to make up the ads in the next few weeks.