NEW YORK — Network news teams aren’t sleeping much this week.
Wednesday’s mix of Sept. 11 documentaries, analysis and live events will span 18 hours, reach across three time zones, and involve at least two anchor locations per network.
For journalists — who still have their regular job descriptions to worry about — this kind of epic coverage is an unprecedented logistical sleight-of-hand.
“It’s ironic, but in many ways the day is harder to plan than what happened last year,” says Marcy McGinnis, CBS’s senior vice-president of news coverage, who is heading up Black Rock’s anni efforts.
“It’s a huge project, taking every single person and resource in our department.”
While the five nets are pooling resources to cover the five major focal points that day — the President, Ground Zero, Battery Park City, the Pentagon, and the area near Shanksville, Pa., where one of the hijacked planes crashed — those sites are only part of their concerns.
One of the biggest hurdles for the 9/11 anni coverage, she said, has been the different time zones involved.
To prepare for the day’s logistical juggling, McGinnis split her news team into three groups, with an exec producer heading up each one.
“I didn’t want one bunch of people more tired than another,” she said.
In all, the net will have three control rooms, and two anchor locations in Washington and New York, where the tech staff has already been wiring away for the past weeks hooking up Dan Rather’s broadcast to Ground Zero. “We’ve all been working hard, but the tech staff really has a lot to do,” she said.
CNN leans on ‘special’ crew
Unlike CBS, whose special events division was incorporated into one of its three teams, CNN has relied more heavily on its special events team.
Usually called into action for, say, a national party convention or a president traveling overseas, the unit will contribute 30 enterprise pieces to Wednesday’s telecast.
But since the team does not have its own correspondents, the cabler will lean heavily on “American Morning” host Paula Zahn and “NewsNight” host Aaron Brown, who together will anchor most of the day’s proceedings from the roof of the net’s Garment District HQ in Manhattan.
They’ll be corresponding with sub-anchors Bill Hemmer at Ground Zero and Wolf Blitzer, who will be stationed at the Pentagon. Correspondent John King will be recollecting Vice-President Dick Cheney’s day September 11.
“We’ve have to organize all these live events that are going on at the same time,” said CNN spokeswoman Meagan Mahoney. The challenge of providing a full day of material for stations groups is even more intense for Fox, which has fewer resources.
Affils lean on nets
While much of the nation will turn its eyes to the nets that day, so too will affiliate programmers.
“It’s day of national unity, and by definition that’s what the broadcast networks are for,” said Freedom Communications CEO and Prexy Alan Bell, whose Irvine, Calif.-based group owns five CBS and three ABC stations across the country.
Bell said that while a station like Albany’s WRGB will offer a doc on the firemen who drove down Interstate 87 to volunteer at Ground Zero, his stations won’t broadcast much local fare.
“Affiliates will offer some local news, but anything else would seem manufactured.”
Hearst-Argyle spokesman Tom Campo, however, foresees a symbiotic arrangement between affils for his New York-based group of 27 stations.
On 9/11, its DC bureau will coordinate coverage of New York, Washington and Pennsylvania (through two local affils from Lancaster-Harrisburg and Pittsburgh) and transmit the programming by way of satellite service (in partnership with Loral) to other affils.
Campo also reported that some stations may generate a small amount programming that focusing on a family related to a victim of the terrorist attacks, or on local response to the day’s events, but he added that his group will have some more unusual skeins.
For instance, group flagship station WCVB of Boston will feature a town meeting on the eve of 9/11.
(Both Hearst-Argyle and Freedom report that 9/11 advertising will be minimal but claim that the losses will have little bottom-line impact.)
Hands down, though, the bulk of the day’s programming burden has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the nets.
“I have some stressed exec producers who tell me that they’re waking up at 4 a.m.,” reported McGinnis. “I asked them why they didn’t call me. I’m up, too.”