Newsies invade primetime, web execs fret

NEW YORK — Before Regis had a chance to ask “Is that your final answer?” he was cut off by George W. Bush.

In the midst of sweeps, ABC interrupted its hottest show to cover Bush’s Nov. 26 speech, after Florida’s secretary of state certified him the winner of the state’s 25 electoral votes.

The interruption was one of many that tested the tenuous relationship between the network news and entertainment divisions, and threatens to change future news coverage.

When top-rated programs get preempted during sweeps, entertainment execs fret. But network toppers have a different reason to worry: How long can they afford to chase breaking news stories day after day at great expense?

Networks lose income from commercials that don’t air and forfeit valuable promos that have been dropped in order to make room for news breaks. And the news itself is expensive to produce.

One network insider estimates that each of the news divisions spent at least $2 million a day on coverage since election day — money that was not accounted for in news budgets.

“There is no getting around the fact that this thing is unbelievably costly,” says Marcy McGinnis, VP of news coverage at CBS News. “Any time you have an ongoing breaking story of this magnitude, it costs money because you have people in places they wouldn’t normally be.”

And there may be no end in sight for the vast outlay.

News divisions are hoping that the new administration will supply as much made-for-television drama as the past few weeks. But network toppers are wondering whether the public’s seeming insatiable appetite for election news will dwindle once a President settles into the White House.

But newsies — particularly those at the cable networks –say it’s worth the money. “We’re counting chads, not dollars,” MSNBC spokesman Mark O’Connor says.

The 24-hour news nets are not about to complain when their ratings have jumped dramatically thanks to the ongoing election. In primetime during November, Fox News’ ratings increased 225%, CNN’s were up 165% and MSNBC increased 203%, compared with last November.

Meanwhile, entertainment execs have been temporarily pushed aside to make room for breaking news. For the most part, they’ve taken the slew of interruptions in stride.

Jeff Bader, exec VP of ABC Entertainment, says that when breaking campaign news cut into the last 15 minutes of “Geena,” the network had to notify the show’s producers.

“They were very gracious,” Bader says. “What were they going to say? It’s the presidency of the United States that’s at stake.”

The story has captured audiences who don’t normally tune in to news. Even newsies are surprised at the level of audience attention.

“Before last week, the idea that you could put just a single camera in a Broward County court room and that people would be transfixed by the passing of a single ballot was unthinkable,” “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw says.Indeed, in the battle between news and entertainment, news, for the most part, has won out. But there has been one notable exception.

On the same night ABC interrupted “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” NBC opted for the king of the world rather than the contest over the ruler of the free world.

Unwilling to cast aside the heavily promoted broadcast premiere of “Titanic” on the last Sunday of sweeps, NBC chose not to carry Bush’s certification ceremony live. Instead, it delivered a special report about it 20 minutes later.

The only TV web not to follow the story live, the Peacock net drew criticism for what some saw as warped priorities.

“Nothing damages a news division’s prestige and credibility more than finding itself pre-empted out of a major news story because the entertainment side essentially says ‘get lost,’ ” says former ABC News executive Av Westin.

Unlike ABC and CBS, which don’t have cable news partners, NBC had the option of airing the breaking news live on cable.

“If it weren’t for MSNBC and CNBC acting as a safety valve, NBC News would be extremely embarrassed,” Westin says.

And MSNBC and its competitors have discovered ingenious ways to keep the story alive, even during temporarily lulls — constantly promising “Breaking News” and running tickers counting down the seconds to the next legal deadline.While it may not have been as inherently thrilling as O.J.’s famous Bronco chase, last week’s motorcade of ballots captivated viewers anxious to watch history being made.

The 24-hour news nets broadcast live images of a Ryder truck carrying over 450,000 Palm Beach County presidential election ballots making the 450-mile trek to the state capital on Nov. 30.

“Oh my God. The whole world is watching!” exclaimed the famous-for-15-seconds Lt. Jim Kersey, who was driving the lead car.

He wasn’t entirely wrong.

The motorcade was just the latest spectacle in a more than three-week-long odyssey of electoral stalemate that has boosted ratings for newscasts, newsmags and cable news nets.

“Frankly, we giggled a lot about the truck here,” says Sid Bedingfield, executive VP and general manager of CNN/U.S. “In a story that seems to take a different turn every day, why not a Ryder truck in the middle of it? It’s a silly moment in a very serious story.

With increased ratings, the news nets will, undoubtedly, be able to ask for higher ad rates. But, financially, the biggest winner in this all may be that little ol’ truck renter.

“Ryder got all that free ad time,” says Steve Friedman, executive producer of CBS News’ “The Early Show.” “They should just kill their fourth quarter ad buys and air the clip of the truck carrying the ballots with the slogan: ‘When America needs to transport ballots, they call Ryder.’ “

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