News Teams Rise to Challenge in Florida

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The television visual that became all too familiar in Florida this season was a reporter in soaked rain gear standing outside in the dark, with winds lashing against hair and skin, urging viewers to remain indoors.

That became the primary job of many of Florida’s local television reporters for six weeks in August and September as stations in markets including Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach were pounded successively by Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.

In fact, at about 10:04 p.m. (ET) Saturday, Sept. 25, as most residents hunkered inside waiting for the fourth hurricane to bear down on the state, an anchor on Media General-owned NBC affiliate WFLA-TV in Tampa said, “There is nothing like this in the recorded history of Florida, with three major hurricanes and a category 4 hurricane within six weeks in the state of Florida.”

Local TV stations throughout the state lost a lot during those six weeks-millions in ad revenue, unexpected overtime expenses and, for one particularly unlucky station, part of its roof.

Among the issues local broadcasters in Florida confronted was how to allocate journalistic resources, ensure safety of crews and manage the financial losses incurred from wall to wall-and at times, commercial-free-coverage.

Here’s a look at how several stations around the state fared.

Scripps-owned NBC station WPTV in West Palm Beach was perhaps the hardest hit. While covering Hurricane Frances in early September for 63 hours without a break, the station’s 3-year-old, $28 million facility suffered too as 120 mph winds ripped panels off the roof, causing water to pour into the outer offices. The station’s radar was also torn off.

Just a few weeks later, general manager Brian Lawlor reassured staff that the new wood panels-a temporary fix-would protect them if Hurricane Ivan blew their way. It didn’t, and hit the Florida Panhandle instead. But at the end of September Hurricane Jeanne tested the interim roof when she came smashing onto the state’s east coast at category 3 strength the evening of Sept. 25.

The two storms resulted in about $1.5 million in lost ad revenue, while the Doppler radar should cost close to $1 million to replace. In addition, Mr. Lawlor estimates the station shelled out at least $100,000 in overtime.

Those expenses don’t include other storm essentials like the round-the-clock chocolate and caffeine needed to keep crews going or the three days’ worth of food a caterer prepared in advance of Hurricane Jeanne for the station’s staffers. WPTV also lost a microwave mast and a news truck. Mr. Lawlor said WPTV is evaluating a long-term architectural solution for the roof.

The multimillion-dollar expense is simply the cost of doing business in Florida, he said. “For 20 years you get a free pass [with no major hurricanes in West Palm Beach]. You can’t worry about the ad revenue. You can’t tiptoe around and be sensitive to expenses,” he said.

Expecting a Bounceback

Ad losses are not confined to the storm days themselves. In fact, local businesses impacted by the storm often pull back their advertising in the weeks following a hurricane as they rebuild, said Viki Regan, VP and general manager for Hearst-Argyle-owned ABC station WPBF-TV in West Palm Beach. She expects a bounceback soon, though. “The economic impact was significant, especially with Florida being a hotbed for politics for what would have been a heated September [for political ads],” she said.

Shannon High-Bassalik, the news director at Viacom-owned CBS station WFOR-TV in Miami, estimated that each of the first three storms cost at least $200,000 in lost revenue, satellite time, overtime expenses and food costs for storms that didn’t even hit the Miami area. Hurricane Jeanne, since it was a quicker event, cost about $100,000. WFOR does run commercials during some of its wall-to-wall coverage and usually goes only about 24 to 36 hours without commercials. WFOR veteran weathercaster Bryan Norcross led much of the coverage for the station and was often on-air as much as 14 hours a day during each storm.

During Hurricane Frances, which made a long, slow slog through the state, the station was in continuous coverage for 55 hours, the longest such duration for a storm that didn’t even hit South Florida, Ms. High-Bassalik said. “I feel like I have been in extended or continuing coverage for six weeks,” she said in late September.

During Hurricane Charley she devoted 20 percent to 25 percent of her field staff to the storm, which hit Fort Myers, outside the Miami DMA. During Hurricane Frances her entire field staff of reporters and photographers was spread up and down the coast.

Safety Plan

While WFOR is accustomed to covering hurricanes, the key to safety is putting a plan in place for the dos and don’ts. That’s something WFOR does every June, she said.

At one point during storm coverage, a wind gust caused one reporter to grab a signpost to avoid getting knocked off her feet. If Hurricane Ivan had hit the Keys, Ms. High-Bassalik said, she wouldn’t have sent crews to report on it due to the high level of danger.

Surprisingly, beaches are the safest place for a reporter because there isn’t much debris flying off the water, compared with a street or inland location where flying shingles or pieces of a roof could be dangerous, she said.

Though many stations warn viewers to stay indoors while their reporters are outside, that’s not actually the contradiction it seems, said Peter Roghaar, news director at WPTV. “It’s our job,” he said. “It’s our job to provide a firsthand account, just like when we cover the war in Iraq.”

That said, WPTV reporters do take precautions. Reporters know to find locations that buffet the wind, such as places where they will be protected by walls on two sides. “So you can step out [for the live shot] and then step back in,” he said.

Still, in each storm there usually comes a time when the crews have to go inside a shelter or emergency facility and conduct interviews by phone and reports at that point. “You have to trust your field crews,” he said.

NBC, which draws on an arsenal of 29 owned NBC and Telemundo stations as well as resources at NBC News, News Channel (NBC’s affiliate feed service) and MSNBC for far-reaching stories, lets its crews know that when they feel it’s unsafe for them to go any further, management will respect their decision, said Steve Schwaid, senior VP for news and programming, NBC Universal Stations Division.

“I think they encountered flying roofs, trees falling, electrical lines dropping into water, high winds … many times needing to move the truck into another area,” he said. He tells crews to be smart, take a step back and trust their instincts.

It’s critical to reiterate safety issues and to pull people in at times, said John Sears, VP, news, at Fox-owned WOFL-TV in Orlando. “Reporters who cover any hurricane for the first time are often willing to take chances, and even though we say, `You can’t take any chances,’ we often had to pull them into a more secure location,” he said.

Reporters need to be on their toes in such conditions. “When the wind is blowing at 80 miles an hour and rain is stinging your face, you will have debris flying through. We just need to be absolutely aware of debris that’s flying, and if it’s not rain, it’s branches, limbs, and those things can come and cause damage,” Mr. Sears said. “We need to make sure everyone is aware.” Still, during Hurricane Frances one reporter was hit by a portion of a palm tree, he said.

In that same storm, WSVN-TV reporter Derek Hayward was hit in the head when the door of his news truck was swung open by wind, said Tom Gonzalez-Diego, news director for the Sunbeam-owned Fox station in Miami. Mr. Hayward continued to report.

Skip Valet is the news director at Post-Newsweek-owned CBS station WKMG-TV in Orlando. He said his veteran hurricane chaser Donald Forbes cut his hand and suffered a gash under his eye when he was hit by a piece of a roof while reporting live. The station had to abandon a news truck because it was no longer safe to drive during one of the s

“That’s just the nature of the beast when you cover hurricanes,” Mr. Valet said. He estimated that WKMG’s cost to cover the hurricanes was similar to the WFOR figure, at about $200,000 per storm.

Technology helped some stations cover the storms. During Hurricane Frances, Post-Newsweek-owned ABC station WPLG-TV in Miami had a crew in the Bahamas but lost telephone communications with the crew while it was trying to book a satellite window.

There was no way to tell the crew when the window would be, so the station found an unusual solution, said Justin Wells, a news producer at WPLG. “We knew the [crew] could watch our air, so we had our anchors on-air inform the crew to power up,” he said. While the anchors indicated that giving the crew details on-air about behind-the-scenes matters is not normal practice, it was the only option in that case.

Within 10 minutes the station was receiving the exclusive pictures.

WPTV broadcast live on the Web during Jeanne. Mr. Lawlor said he received an e-mail from a man in Texas who watched the streamed news coverage and updated his brother in West Palm Beach via cellphone about the storm’s path because his brother had lost power.