As several fires blazed out of control across Southern California, local stations blew out regular programming to air non-stop news coverage – taking a big financial hit in the process.
Insiders said stations likely lost as much as $400,000 each in ad revenue by going commercial-free for most of the day. But local station toppers said they didn’t think twice about dumping their regular schedules.
“We have to cover it,” said KCBS/KCAL vp/general manager Don Corsini. “This is why we do news. Unfortunately, it’s the name of the game. You’re doing the right thing with the coverage.”
Local stations spent most of Sunday and Monday covering the fires, breaking only for primetime. On Sunday, KCBS and KTTV took advantage of their sister stations (KCAL and KCOP, respectively) to continue covering the story even after switching to NFL coverage.
The outlets also utilized their digital feeds to juggle programming. On Sunday, KNBC kept running news on its “News Raw” digital channel after its main feed turned to Sunday Night Football; on Monday, KABC moved its daytime soap operas to its secondary digital channel in order to stick with fire coverage on the main station.
“People who wanted to follow our coverage were able to do so,” said KNBC vp/news director Bob Long. “That’s not an option I would have had even a few years ago. We’re all discovering these new platforms and using them in different ways.”
Meanwhile, with so many fires hitting the region hard at the same time, maxed-out local TV news teams put aside some of their competitive ways in order to pool video coverage .
In the process, local TV helicopters were stationed all over the region, rather than duplicating coverage of the same fire.
“It’s usually done ad hoc, with a couple of stations at a time,” Long said. “Most of us only operate one machine, and we obviously can’t be everywhere at once. We have long-standing arrangements with some of our colleagues. After all, helicopters have to land and get fuel. We’ll protect a competitor while they’re gassing up, and expect the same will be done for us.”
Long says the dynamic changes from time-to-time – occasionally, one of the local stations will get too competitive and refuse to cooperate – but “mostly we get along pretty well.”
“In a situation like this, it’s nonsense to fall back on a competitive attitude,” Long said. “It’s about public safety and the safety of our own people. And it’s not safe to stack a bunch of helicopters over one fire.”
Long knows very well the danger of news crews covering out-of-control fires. During the last major regional fire disaster in 2003, KNBC lost a news truck – and news reporter Chuck Henry was nearly killed, along with his cameraman. Because of the risks, Long said his news team is required to take classes on how to cover the story.
“Almost all the fire agencies offer training, and this company insists on it,” Long said. “Our crews went through some training very recently.”
Long also noted that covering fires is nothing new to most of his staff, given the regular natural disasters here.
“Sadly, we get to train all the time,” he said. “Los Angeles never disappoints when it comes to drama. And we just know the drill.
Over at KCBS and KCAL, Corsini said even the resources of two TV stations and an expanded news team hasn’t been enough to cover the scope of the story.
“Clearly this requires a lot of resources, and frankly, more resources than we have in order to be in every single spot at the same time,” Corsini said. “But we’re doing the best we can with the crews and reporters that we have in the field.”
Logistically, Corsini’s newsroom was also producing two live news telecasts at the same time for much of Sunday and Monday, further putting a crunch on his team. What’s more, many staffers – including the two stations’ news director, Nancy Bauer Gonzales – were having to deal with their own homes being evacuated.
But Corsini was pleased in particular with the huge rating posted by KCAL on Sunday night, as the only station that aired all news in primetime.
Long, meanwhile, has coined a new nickname (borrowed from Walter Cronkite, who earned the moniker from his marathon rocket launch telecasts) for anchor Beverly White: “Iron Butt.” White, who usually anchors the weekend “Today in L.A.” 7 a.m. telecasts, sat in the anchor chair until the start of “Sunday Night Football.”
“These anchors really earn their keep sitting at a desk, making sense of what is by definition chaos,” Long said. As for the news team as a whole, “Everyone who knows how to do something really useful is out there.”
By late Monday, the stations were still plotting whether to expand their late night newscasts, and monitoring whether to break into primetime should the magnitude of the story continue to grow.
“If things should worsen, then it’s an hour-by-hour judgement call,” Corsini said.