We Interrupt This Program

The recent wildfires in Southern California pushed local news resources to the limit and beyond. With regular programming diverted to overnights, digital secondary channels, or just suspended, the ads that accompany them and pay the bills didn�t get aired.

�The only time we aired commercials during our wall-to-wall coverage was to give the on-air anchors bathroom or food breaks,� said Richard Doutr� Jones, general manager of Fox affiliate XETV in San Diego. �That was it.�

Station executives did not divulge how much revenue was lost, but a report in the trade journal Variety estimated stations that did wall-to-wall coverage for nearly two days each lost up to $400,000 in ad revenues. Even with the resumption of normal schedules, ongoing coverage on stations� secondary digital and Web sites kept staff busy around the clock. The resulting overtime costs have yet to be added up, but they are likely to be substantial, as well as money spent on hotels, food, and gas for news crews.

So how will stations recoup their losses? In general, they won�t. �We haven�t even begun to think about make-goods,� Jones said. �We�ll do them when we can, and issue credits where we can�t.�

Lost revenues weren�t top of mind for Robert Long, vice president and news director at NBC O&O KNBC in Los Angeles.

�This is what public service is all about, and what people expect from their local broadcasters,� he said. �We�ve been through it before, and we�ll go through it again.�

Coverage of the SoCal wildfires kicked into life on Sunday Oct. 20.
�The first fire started in nearby Ramona that morning,� Jones said. �I went to church at 11 a.m., and there wasn�t a sign of smoke anywhere. When I came out at 2 [p .m.], I could hardly breathe. The whole sky was filled with smoke; it was shocking.�

Over at KNSD, NBC�s San Diego O&O, news director Greg Dawson was already calling in extra staff to cover the breaking story.

�After going through the 2003 Cedar Fire,� which killed 15 people and burned nearly 300,000 acres, �I recognized that these were prime conditions for trouble,� Dawson said. �Any time the hot Santa Ana winds come in from the desert, our news team is on edge and ready to respond.�

Los Angeles stations also scrambled to cover the growing fires.
�I got our first call about the fire at 8 a.m., and by 9 a.m. I was at the station,� KNBC�s Long said. �We were fully staffed by noon, with crews out in the field.

Los Angeles and San Diego stations soon broke into regular programming to announce the news. Many provided wall-to-wall coverage into Monday evening.

�In those times when we weren�t able to stay with wall-to-wall on KNBC, such as Sunday Night Football, we moved our coverage to our News Raw digital channel, KNBC 4.4,� Long said. �Later, we swapped it out with our 4.2 weather channel, because it�s carried along with our main HDTV feed on local cable TV systems.�

At KNSD, station management coped by playing the NFL game in full screen, with the newscast and news audio in an embedded window. At San Diego�s XETV, Jones used a split screen to keep local news coverage on air alongside the last game of the MLB American League Championship Series, with occasional three-minute cutins.

To his astonishment, this move angered many local viewers who either didn�t grasp the seriousness of the situation, or just didn�t care.
�We received about 100 irate phone calls and emails from people, flipping out and asking how we could dare to break into the ALCS game,� he said �It was amazing!�

Fox headquarters took a less critical approach. �I spoke to the Fox Network and all they cared about was what they could do to help,� he said. �They said not to worry ... they appreciated our plan to make-good Fox prime 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., Monday and Tuesday nights. In addition, no sales person complained about wall-to-wall coverage.�

Stations provided Web surfers with interactive content online, including places to post digital photos and videos of the fires.

�When we got up to the 3,000 picture range, we started assembling the images into slide shows,� Dawson said �The quality was phenomenal, as was the ability of the viewers to take us places that we just didn�t have the manpower to cover.�


The stations started to assess the impact on their bottom lines in the days following the coverage marathon. KNBC�s Long was stoic about the strain on staff and resources.

�These kind of stories are not a hardship for us; they�re our stock in trade,� he said. �The stories are obvious, and they don�t require long preparation and investigative reporting.�

XETV�s Jones was more fervent: �It was overwhelming!� he said.
The sheer number and scale of the fires often exceeded the stations� abilities to cope, so some pooled their resources and helicopters to provide better overall coverage.

Staffs worked 12-hour shifts, although many went �24 to 36 hours before taking a break,� Dawson said.

Stations booked hotel rooms for those who needed to stay close, wherever it was possible. Many slept in their offices or cars, whenever a break for sleep could be found.

Family members and volunteers also were enlisted to help with supporting jobs so that experienced employees could be reassigned to the front lines. Many of those on-air in San Diego were evacuees themselves whose homes were at risk.

In one particularly poignant instance, Larry Himmel, a journalist with CBS-affiliate KFMB, reported from in front of his own burning house.
�That was our garage,� Himmel told viewers as the flames flickered behind him. �Our living room over there... our porch.... bedroom... This was a living hell coming over the hill.�

The result was a classic local news marathon, with staff remaining at their posts until the fires were contained.

At KNBC Long assigned Walter Cronkite�s nickname of �Iron Butt� to anchor Beverly White, who stayed live on air for 12 hours straight. White laughed at the reference.

�I�m flattered by the �Iron Butt� characterization,� she said. �I typically do the morning show on Saturday and Sunday, so I just happened to be there when the fires broke out.�

An editorial meeting was called, and she was asked to hang around. She ended up hanging around all day, with Long asking her at one point if she wanted to take a break.

�Bob could have pulled me. He didn�t have to ask, but he asked,� she said. �I appreciate the trust that implies.�

There are always costs associated when stations throw every resource at a natural disaster, but local news has a charter, as Long noted and White seconded.

�It sounds corny to call it public service, but that day, that�s what it felt like,� she said.