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Stations Decamp to Internet

Sep 5, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Like the city they serve, New Orleans broadcasters finally had to capitulate to overwhelming circumstances last week and evacuate their facilities, many of which were flooded, and go off the air for a while.

But that didn’t stop their news gathering. The reporting moved to the stations’ Web sites, where streaming video showed the growing enormity of the disaster in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Many of the webcasts were produced with help from sister stations. In some cases, they also had, or were able to borrow, transmitters on drier land.

There was evidence that the stations’ hard work was finding an audience on the Web. According to Hearst-Argyle, on Aug. 31 WDSU.com recorded more than 3.3 million page views and more than 250,000 live video streams, bringing the three-day post-hurricane total to 12.4 million page views and 1.3 million streams.

The stations’ news and operations crews soldiered on as they reported about an epic tragedy that affected their neighbors, their relatives and themselves.

“We’ve never seen a story where so many of the people who are covering it are watching [as] their neighborhoods” are ravaged, said Fred Young, senior news VP for Hearst-Argyle Television, which owns NBC affiliate WDSU-TV in New Orleans.

“We’re convinced our news director has no home left,” Belo Media Operations President Jack Sander said, referring to Sandy Breland, the news director of Belo’s CBS affiliate WWL-TV in New Orleans. Ms. Breland’s family evacuated safely before Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast.

TV operators’ priorities included accounting for employees, urging them to stay safe, praising their often heroic efforts and assuring them they would have paychecks, jobs and in some cases financial help from employers to get back on their feet.

By late last week it was still impossible to assess the total cost of the damage suffered by New Orleans’ TV stations or how long it might be before repairs could begin. No one had been able to get close enough to inspect their properties.

“It may be some time before we’re in a position to even get into the area,” said a spokesman for Tribune Broadcasting, which owns ABC affiliate WGNO-TV and WB affiliate WNOL-TV in New Orleans, both of which were off the air but updating their Web sites from other locations.

Emmis Communications owns WVUE-TV, the Fox affiliate in New Orleans, and WALA-TV and WBPJ-TV, Fox and WB affiliates, respectively, in the Mobile-Pensacola market, which also took a major hit from the storm. WALA and WBPG got back on the air last week.

“We’ve had a distant fly-by on the WVUE transmission towers, and they appear intact. We expect a closer inspection as aircraft become available. We will know more about the structural integrity of the towers and building when we have access to the site, which may take several weeks,” said Emmis spokeswoman Kate Snedeker, who also said in an e-mail to reporters that the company is working to restore WVUE’s signal to DirecTV.

Cox Communications is the largest cable operator in greater New Orleans, with about 270,000 subscribers. No inspection closer than a flyover has been possible, a spokesman said, but, “We know we are going to have significant damage to some facilities.”

Cox fared better with its Baton Rouge, La., (185,000 subscribers) and Gulf Coast (170,000) systems. By late last week Baton Rouge was close to having all subscribers “up and running,” according to Cox. The Gulf Coast area was largely back in service early in the week.

Washington Post-owned Cable One had no sense late last week of when it would be able to restore cable service to some 110,000 subscribers in hard-hit Biloxi, Gulfport and Pascagoula, Miss., and smaller areas in the hurricane disaster area. For now, a spokeswoman said, it is focused on taking care of some 178 employees in the region, more than 20 of whom had not been located late last week.

Like the other affected media companies in the area, Cable One was shipping in basic provisions, including water, ice, food, gas and even cash to tide people over.

In fact, with all of New Orleans and much of the wider region expected to be without power for weeks, if not months, the restoration of TV service is moot.

Belo worked out a deal to move operations into the Louisiana Public Broadcasting facilities in Baton Rouge.

“We know there ain’t nobody in New Orleans watching TV,” Mr. Young said.

Nevertheless, WDSU’s signal was being picked up by DirecTV and EchoStar by Thursday afternoon.

According to a spokeswoman for Nielsen Media Research, New Orleans and Birmingham, Ala., are the most affected metered-market samples. Only two of the required 350 homes in the New Orleans sample had been able to phone in data all week. In Birmingham, 275 of the requisite 340 needed to produce ratings, were calling in by the end of the week. Birmingham is the 40th largest market, representing .65 percent of the TV homes in the U.S. New Orleans is the 43rd largest market, with .61 percent of all U.S. TV homes.

A Nielsen spokeswoman said that the absence of complete data from Birmingham and New Orleans will not affect delivery of national sample data. Nielsen statisticians said the national results are “still significantly stable.”