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Heist rivets TV stations

The bloody, botched armed robbery on Friday morning of a Bank of America branch in North Hollywood was captured live on local television news in some of the most dramatic live aerial pictures ever to accompany a news story in Los Angeles.

Stations dropped regular programming almost immediately to broadcast the unfolding terror, which ended with two perpetrators being killed and eight police officers and five local residents sustaining injuries.

With pictures beamed from choppers, several stations — in particular KTLA — presented the surrealistic scene of two gunmen dressed like commandos spraying bullets at outgunned policemen in a residential neighborhood.

Viewers saw one of the men almost casually striding down a street with his AK-47 rifle, firing into car windows and homes (and reportedly even into the sky at the news helicopters). That same gunman was shown being killed by a bullet to the head as he rose to empty his weapon once again.

The sometimes shocking pictures of North Hollywood being transformed into a war zone were telecast, mostly commercial-free, throughout the morning and into the afternoon, depicting scenes of gunfire and congregated spectators that reminded some of the chaos depicted in such films as “Heat” and “Dog Day Afternoon.”

In the turmoil of the day, stations grasped for any shred of information to separate rumor from fact. The result was hours of uncertainty, premature statements and projections and, ultimately, corrections made on the fly.

While the LAPD was said to be grateful that TV news was aiding its search for additional suspects by broadcasting aerial footage of the neighborhood, some critics were left wondering if television was doing the right thing in going live with material that would surely traumatize the populace.

However, Larry Perret, news director at KCBS-TV (which stayed with the robbery story commercial-free from 9:30 a.m. to 3:43 p.m. on Friday), said that none of the residents of the North Hollywood-Studio City area cordoned off by the police dragnet was complaining about the coverage.

“Our job is to serve people, and they have a right to know that this is happening in their neighborhood,” Perret said. “It’s a public service issue. Are we supposed to ignore it when our streets and freeways are closed by a manhunt of this magnitude?”

Others were left wondering, however, if the continual rebroadcasting of dramatic footage of the suspects shooting wildly throughout the area crossed the line into exploitation.

Said one executive with a local station: “I feel like we had to keep reshowing the material because everyone else was, but I didn’t like it. There are certain things you don’t need to do to cover this story effectively, no matter how sexy the pictures.”

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