Editorial: TV Must Prepare for Next Disaster

Aug 25, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When the largest electric power blackout in U.S. history plunged much of the East Coast into darkness earlier this month, it provided a true test of not only the public’s emergency preparedness but also that of the television industry. In this case, both the public and the industry generally did well, for which both deserve high praise.
Our focus is, of course, on the TV industry. As news organizations and as businesses, the vast majority of impacted networks and stations showed a high degree of professionalism. News teams, both local and national, put in long hours and earned well-deserved praise from critics for their performance under pressure.
In terms of operations, backup generators kicked in at most broadcast stations across the United States and Canada, which allowed uninterrupted service. Whether viewers had power to run their TV sets was more problematical, but information was available for those who could receive it.
Many cable systems had a harder time, as wired networks shut down or customers were simply cut off by their own lack of power. Today many TV viewers depend on cable. When it goes down, they lose access to information they need in an emergency. Cable systems must look at backup systems on every level of their operations.
Ultimately, the greatest lesson is that broadcast and cable television, like society, must continue to prepare for the unexpected. There must be plans in place for any situation in the post-9/11 world, where we face a continuing series of threats to the normal functioning of society-whether from terrorism, transformer failure, natural disaster or other hazards. This is now a fact of life.
Looking specifically at this blackout, the experts indicate that problems with our national power grid are far from solved. Deregulation, which was supposed to make the industry stronger, instead has left our national power system fragmented, badly in need of an upgrade and chronically underfunded in terms of maintenance. For all those reasons, the experts warn that similar failures are likely in the future.
That is why it is crucial that the TV industry learn from this experience. Everything from stockpiling fuel for generators to upgrading microwave repeaters-many of which failed in the areas affected by the blackout-should be taken into consideration. Even such low-tech preparations as stocking up on flashlights and laying in an adequate supply of food and water can loom large in an emergency. Indeed, a number of station managers indicated in the wake of the crisis that having an emergency food supply was something they would take more seriously in the future.
Although the industry as a whole performed commendably in this crisis, it would be a mistake to take that success as a sign that things are under control and we can just relax from now on. The industry has the power to make preparedness a priority right now. It must take that power and use it, before the lights go out again.