For newscasters and audience, the fatigue factor may be coming into play when it comes to cable and network news. Anchors and commentators are clearly running on empty, and the number of people watching the all-news coverage of the terrorist attacks dropped off quite a bit Wednesday.
Working overtime under stressful conditions, newsies were beginning to fray Thursday after having covered the tragedy continuously for three days. The coverage is by all accounts the longest on record for the nets; during the four days of commercial-free news following President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, ABC, CBS and NBC went off the air overnight.
“People for the most part are working a minimum of 12-hour shifts. That’s at a minimum,” said Eason Jordan, president of newsgathering and chief news exec at CNN News Group. Broadcast network anchors Dan Rather (CBS), Tom Brokaw (NBC) and Peter Jennings (ABC), for example, have been on the air an average of 15 hours a day since Tuesday.
Busy reporting the story, most journos have had little time to absorb the repercussions of Tuesday’s disaster.
“MSNBC is seven miles from the World Trade Center. We see the smoke every day from our building,” said MSNBC prexy and general manager Erik Sorenson. “I don’t usually shed any tears or allow myself to become emotionally involved, but I’m feeling pretty battle-weary.”
Sorenson said MSNBC staffers were working 16- and 18-hour days. “We’re catching an hour or two of sleep here and there, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. But look at the firefighters and rescue workers. Who are we to complain?”
On Wednesday overall audience levels for coverage of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington were down sharply from Tuesday.
According to preliminary estimates from Nielsen Media Research, nearly 55 million Americans watched an average minute of news coverage Wednesday night on the four major broadcast networks and three all-news cable nets, down from the more than 75 million who watched in primetime Tuesday, the day of the attacks in New York and Washington.
By comparison, an average of 61.6 million viewers watched the same networks’ coverage of Election Night in November and an average of 84.3 million viewers watched January’s Super Bowl on CBS.
The major nets and news cablers continued Thursday to devote the entirety of primetime to the tragedy — without commercials — while weblets UPN and the WB had joined many cable nets in returning to entertainment programming on Wednesday.
The broadcast nets could return to regular coverage tonight depending on how the news unfolds, but the cable newsies are prepared to stay with the crisis indefinitely.
“We’re getting ready for a war,” said MSNBC’s Sorenson. “We’ll be covering this for the foreseeable future. In the bunker that I’m in now, I can’t see the end of the tunnel in terms of relinquishing air. I don’t think we dare leave. This is what we do, and we can’t let people down.”
“We will be on this story and nothing else for many days to come,” Jordan said.
Industry analysts suggested that by broadcasting without commercials, nets could be losing as much as $100 million a day.
“Money is not a concern right now,” CNN’s Jordan said. “This is a national emergency on an unprecedented scale. The last thing we think about is how much money we spend or make.”
One broadcast net exec said, “Questions about make-goods seem insignificant considering the impact of this tragedy to this nation.”
Besides, execs said, it was unlikely advertisers would want to plug products during coverage of the tragedy.
As for the viewing estimates, Nielsen’s prelim nationals for Wednesday — which don’t completely account for time differences of live telecasts — show that the broadcast nets accounted for roughly 43.6 million of Wednesday’s overall aud, with NBC leading the way (14.9m), followed by ABC (12.7m), CBS (11.0m) and Fox (5.0m). Cable was led by CNN (5.2m), followed by Fox News Channel (3.1m) and MSNBC (2.6m).
On Tuesday, the broadcast nets combined for about 60.5 million viewers, a 91% increase vs. the previous Tuesday and 47% more than the parallel Tuesday a year ago. NBC again led the way (22.4 million), followed by ABC (17.6m), CBS (14.4m) and Fox (6.1m); CNN averaged 7.7 million in primetime, followed by Fox News Channel’s 4.4 million and MSNBC’s 2.4 million.
These figures, though, don’t include the affils of the WB and UPN or the numerous cable nets — including ESPN and MTV — that aired coverage of the attacks from other networks.