Budgets, Ethics Under Fire

Nov 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The wildfires raging throughout Southern California last week not only left a toll of death and destruction but also were a major drain on local television stations, which were forced to tax their resources to cover a disaster of such scope.
Those stations now face the financial double whammy of lost advertising revenues and additional news expenses. The final tally won’t be in until the flames have died down, but stations in Los Angeles, San Diego, Ventura, San Bernardino and elsewhere, some with smoke and soot inside their own buildings, by late last week were already facing losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Many went live most days, bumping popular programming and commercials. Some broadcasters also called in additional personnel from sister stations to bolster coverage.
“This is the biggest story that has ever happened to San Diego,” said Darrell Brown, general manager for McGraw-Hill-owned ABC affiliate KGTV, who was slated to become general manager of the group’s ABC affiliate KMGH-TV in Denver this week.
“You think back to the McDonald’s massacre, any big event that you can think of, nothing even comes close to the magnitude of what these fires have done,” Mr. Brown said. “Over 1,000 homes have burned to the ground. You don’t even really think about the displacement of advertising. When a story hits of this magnitude, you do what you have to do.”
Some stations have actually become part of the story. In a close call, the fire line reached within 500 feet of McKinnon Broadcasting-owned independent KUSI-TV in San Diego on Oct. 26; Tribune-owned WB affiliate KSWB-TV in San Diego was included in the mandatory evacuations in that area for a couple of hours the same day and picked up NBC-owned KNSD-TV’s coverage during that time; a KGTV photographer lost his home; and NBC-owned KNBC-TV in Los Angeles lost a $200,000 microwave truck. (See separate story.) Some journalists reported the news while wondering whether their own homes were safe.
Many stations went wall to wall with their coverage Oct. 26, scaling back on Monday and Tuesday and then going live most of the day Wednesday, when the fires kicked up again.
Others, including Tribune-owned WB affiliate KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, opted to cover the fires mainly during regular newscasts. Still, the station pre-empted most commercials during its popular morning show from 5:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. last week. Nielsen Media Research ratings have been strong in the morning and during the 10 p.m. late news, with a 6.2/10 on Oct. 27 at 10 p.m., compared with Fox-owned KTTV’s 2.5/4 and Viacom-owned independent station KCAL-TV’s 4.3/7, KTLA said.
On Tuesday, Oct. 28, KTTV had a 4.6/8 at 10 p.m., KTLA had a 3.7/6 and KCAL had a 2.8/4.
A High Price
Given the fluid nature of the story, the lost ad revenue could be greater than $200,000 while the cost to cover the news could be an additional $100,000 to $200,000 over the course of a week, said Vinnie Malcolm, station manager at KTLA.
The station doesn’t know whether it will recoup the lost revenues. “If I lose a spot for today and I can run it next week and I have inventory, I can make it up,” Mr. Malcolm said. “It’s a bad time to be happening, because we’re pretty tight and we’re pretty well sold.”
As a result of the extraordinary coverage, KTLA will try to hold back on some of its overtime expenses for the next few months when the story is over, he said.
The station decided against wall-to-wall coverage because viewers have ingrained habits during certain time periods when KTLA does not do news, said News Director Jeff Wald. “I’m not convinced that you’re really serving the public if you’re the fifth station with pictures on,” he said.
The Viacom-owned duopoly of KCAL and CBS station KCBS-TV in Los Angeles pre-empted virtually all programming except prime time to cover the fires. The two stations carried about 30 hours of distinct coverage between them each day and relied on about 40 separate crews, said Don Corsini, president and general manager of the duopoly.
The stations have carried some commercials during the coverage. “Right now I’m not totaling my ad revenue,” Mr. Corsini said. “But there will be significant impact. Is it more than a couple hundred thousand dollars? Yes. Is it less than $1 million? Yes.” He hopes to replace most of the lost revenue through make-goods, though ad inventory is tight at this time in the L.A. market.
The duopoly has been aggressive in coverage as part of its efforts to rebuild the news image at KCBS.
KGTV in San Diego took its biggest hit the night of Oct. 27, when it pre-empted two hours of prime time from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. to cover the fires. Bumping ABC sports on Sunday didn’t hurt the station as much since it doesn’t have many local spots to sell in that programming, KGTV’s Mr. Brown said. As of Wednesday, he estimated, the station had lost about $200,000 in advertising.
The station produced a telethon on Monday and Tuesday that raised $1.3 million for the Red Cross to help the families who lost homes. The families included that of KGTV photographer Bruce Andres, who still worked last week while sifting through the rubble of his destroyed house, Mr. Brown said.
Dangerous Duty
Journalists took extra precautions in covering the dangerous fires. KGTV provided goggles and filtered masks to reporters. ABC-owned KABC-TV in Los Angeles supplied fire suits for its crews. The station also provided goggles and dust masks.
Common sense and experience are most important in these situations, said Greg Dawson, VP of news at KNSD. News crews should pay attention to the instructions of firefighting crews, he said.
KNSD benefited from the resources of the NBC group. Early last week, the San Diego station had 16 crews in the field, including crews from sister stations Telemundo affiliate KDRX-TV in Phoenix, and NBC-owned stations WJAR-TV in Providence, R.I., and WMAQ-TV in Chicago, that were called in to help.
The coverage is paying off in ratings. When KNSD carried expanded coverage on Oct. 28, for instance, ratings were triple the norm, though the station points out that Nielsen’s sample for the day was below a statistically acceptable level. In addition, the station won the 11 p.m. news battle Oct. 28 with a 7.2/14, while ABC affiliate KGTV finished with a 5.8/12 and Midwest Television-owned CBS station KFMB-TV generated a 5.4/12. Independent KUSI had the strongest numbers that night of any late local news in the market with a 10.7/19 at 10 p.m.
“We cover the story moment by moment rather than going into prepackaged material,” said KUSI News Director Steve Cohen.