Power Fails, TV Prevails

Aug 18, 2003  •  Post A Comment

It was the worst electrical blackout in U.S. history, severing service in parts of eight Midwestern and Eastern states as well as much of eastern Canada. But the long-term costs to the TV industry are expected to be contained, while news departments drew praise for reacting quickly as backup systems kept most broadcasters and cable on air.
The problems stemmed from an overloading of an electricity grid servicing about 18 percent of the nation’s television households. Almost all broadcast networks and major cable operators reported that their safety nets and generators kicked in immediately when electrical service shut down Thursday afternoon, making the switch to backup power nearly seamless.
Springing into action, local journalists worked overtime providing news coverage that in many cases few viewers got to see. Media-buying executives surveyed by Advertising Age estimated that impacted broadcast stations collectively lost at least $10 million to $20 million in national and local advertising time, since they were forced to replace regularly scheduled programming with continuous all-news coverage.
Overall, most networks predicted the financial impact would be shallow and narrow and limited mostly to loss of commercials, the actual cost of the round-the-clock coverage and such things as fuel for generators. Network executives said they budget for such crises.
Several of the large multiple system cable TV operators said they, too, had successful conversions to backup power after the blackout began.
A spokesman for Cablevisions Systems, whose 3 million cable subscribers are mainly in the metropolitan New York City area, said their headends functioned properly and that the MSO was able to send out its content. However, because cable boxes, cable modems and television sets all need electricity, few Cablevision subscribers, if any, were able to watch.
Comcast, the nation’s largest operator with nearly 22 million subscribers, reported a similar experience largely in its Michigan market, which was heavily impacted, a spokeswoman said. As power is restored, the cable operator said it would dispatch crews to resolve service problems.
The broadcast networks all continued to send their regularly scheduled prime-time feeds to stations without pre-emptions Thursday night, following the beginning of the blackout.
Fox stations in New York City, Detroit, Cleveland, Hartford, Conn., and Buffalo, N.Y., pre-empted Fox’s preseason football game between the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers for local news.
NBC aired its regular schedule, breaking in several times with NBC News special reports giving updates on the blackout. On Thursday evening NBC aired a special run of Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” as scheduled as well as a heavily hyped edition of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” where the “Queer Eye” men made over host Jay Leno. But numerous would-be viewers on the East Coast were without power to tune in.
Barbara Levin, a spokeswoman for NBC News, said the network suffered no disruptions in service, thanks to its immediate switch to backup generators, which kept both NBC and MSNBC on the air.
Ms. Levin said Brian Williams was able to anchor “NBC Nightly News” as scheduled, and NBC followed with a one-hour special report. The network also replaced some prime-time programming with news coverage Thursday night. “We did very well,” Ms. Levin said.
She noted that the nine NBC News producers who are to be embedded with the nine Democratic Presidential candidates were in training at the time of the blackout at NBC News Headquarters in Manhattan and were immediately dispatched into the city with video cameras to get footage of the blackout and stories of how the city was coping.
At the time of the blackout, NBC drama “Law & Order” was shooting on location in Brooklyn and had to shut down production for the remainder of Thursday and all of Friday. The show is scheduled to be back in production Monday. “Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” also film in New York, but it doesn’t start production until Sept. 4.
ABC ran its regular prime-time Thursday schedule, but substituted its “PrimeTime” episode for a live broadcast covering the blackout. “PrimeTime,” hosted by Elizabeth Vargas, ran live on the East and West coasts. Ted Koppel also pulled double duty, hosting “Nightline” live for the East and West coasts.
The cast of new ABC comedy “Hope & Faith” proved they were real troupers. The blackout hit while the cast was at work on the first episode in the new Silvercup East studio in Long Island City, across the East River from New York City. Because cars were not being allowed into New York, cast and crew who had to get home were deposited at the far ends of the most practical bridges and then had to schlep across: Kelly Ripa made her way across the Williamsburg Bridge toward her home in downtown Manhattan, and Faith Ford made her way across the 59th Street Bridge farther north.
The Friday night taping of “Hope & Faith” was moved to Saturday, and arrangements to fill the audience went into high gear Friday at ABC, whose Upper Westside block was among the first in Manhattan to be returned to full power and phone service.
ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne, who flew into New York Thursday for the Friday taping, did see one upside to the blackout-it gave her a rare night off, she said.
“Good Morning America” vacated its Times Square Studio Friday morning and moved to the TV3 Studio at the ABC headquarters complex. There, Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson (who made train, plane and automobilestreks to return from Cape Cod, Mass., to New York) held forth for five hours. Thirty-two blocks south, “GMA” guest artist Liz Phair performed one unplugged number in Bryant Park, where her audience included a number of stranded commuters forced to spend the night in the park.
The reason for “GMA’s” studio switch-security concerns and uncertainty about how long backup generators would be needed and whether the necessary diesel fuel would be on hand-led to ABC News’s decision on Thursday afternoon to have Ted Koppel anchor its first few hours of blackout coverage from Washington.
CBS scheduled a re-airing of Thursday night’s episode of “The Amazing Race 4” for Saturday to give blackout-affected viewers a chance to see the episode before next week’s finale.
The WB and UPN aired their regular feeds, but local stations in some cities may have pre-empted network programming Thursday night.
All-Night News
In the blacked-out markets, local stations immediately began churning out hours of commercial-free news coverage that would last throughout the night and well into Friday.
On WCBS-TV in New York, for example, Dana Tyler and Ernie Anastos anchored from 4:30 p.m. Thursday to 1 a.m. Friday. Lisa Daniels and Brendan Keefe took over until 4 a.m., Shon Gables and Michael Pomeranz took the reins 4 a.m. to 1 p.m. Ms. Tyler and Mr. Anastos returned from 1 p.m. to -2 a.m. Regularly scheduled programming, “As the World Turns and “Dr. Phil,” aired 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, and then Ms. Tyler and Mr. Anastos returned until 6:30 p.m.
New York-based Nielsen Media Research announced that national ratings for Thursday, Aug. 14, will not be available until early in the week. When national ratings come out, they are expected to be a third lower than the overnight ratings.
Without the availability of full power or working phones, CNN’s New York bureau members hit the streets, telecasting from three satellite trucks Thursday night.
Among the journalists who covered the blackout was WCBS reporter Amy Stone in New York City, where the sidewalks and streets were jammed. Many people held either nearly useless cellphones or battery-powered radios to their ears.
“It was a great day for radio,” said a CBS spokesman, who noted that CBS WINS-AM/FM had been picked up by other radio stations throughout the country. In New York, the six Infinity-owned radio stations swapped programming so that Yankee fans and people eager for news were served.
WCBS’s Ms. Stone took up her position in New York at 7th Avenue and 57th Street at 2:30 a.m. Friday, in time to interview a blackout hero and the pregnant-with-twins woman he had carried down 23 flights of stairs.
Deborah Collura, news director at WDIV-TV in Detroit, said her team worked an eight-hour stretch without food, water or most of their equipment. Reporters resorted to phoning in their coverage as live-shot receivers failed. “We were running the bare minimum,” she said.
Near the end of the night, the news staff paid the owner of a nearby restaurant about $1,000 to re-open and make them some chicken wings. “It was worth every penny,” Ms. Collura said. “They’re our heroes today.”
Cleveland CBS affiliate WEWS-TV also had partial power, with generators providing just enough juice to stay on the air. News Director Lynn Heider recalled thinking that no amount of training can quite prepare one for the stress of an unfamiliar crisis. “You just think after 9/11, after all the debriefings and second-guessing, that you’re prepared for anything,” Ms. Heider said. “But we certainly didn’t expect a blackout of this magnitude, where every place you call for resources is also in the dark. But there we were.”
The power outage did not reach as far as California, but the situation’s effects did.
When the blackout occurred, the backup generator for Tribune station WPIX-TV in New York kicked -in, but they could not receive CNN. KTLA-TV, WPIX’s sister station in Los Angeles, fed its CNN feed to WPIX, a KTLA spokeswoman confirmed.
WDIV’s Ms. Collura pointed out that despite all the inconvenience and glitches, the big blackout was exactly the type of situation that makes a news team valuable to a community. “When you’re in crisis coverage, it’s what we live for, it’s what we’re made for,” Ms. Collura said. “At midnight the anchors got off the air and said, `Well, maybe four people with generators saw us.
“But that’s our job. If only four people saw us, at least we were there for them.”
“This is the kind of service only local broadcasters can provide,” a CBS spokesman said.
James Hibberd and Leslie Ryan contributed to this report, which was edited by Melissa Grego.