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Broadcast Nets Poised to Pounce on Zimmerman Verdict

ABC News plans special report when verdict comes down

ABC News is preparing to air a special report when jurors in the much –covered George Zimmerman trial reach a verdict, a signal that a story that has primarily been considered one more platelet in the lifeblood of the cable-news cycle is about to become something of a national event.

ABC News said Friday it will air a special report on the network when the Zimmerman verdict is reached. ABC News Chief Legal Affairs Anchor Dan Abrams and correspondent Matt Gutman, both who have been covering this case from the start, will offer reporting and analysis. The two staffers will report on the verdict for all ABC News platforms including “World News with Diane Sawyer,” “Good Morning America,” and “Nightline.”

The other broadcast networks have yet to disclose their plans, but could do so if it seems clear the jury in the trial is likely to move quickly toward a decision.

The event is a potentially explosive one. The Zimmerman case, in which a 29-year-old one-time volunteer for a neighborhood watch in Sanford, Florida has been charged with the shooting death of a teenager, Trayvon Martin, has been closely followed. “This is about more than just the crime itself,” said Scot M. Safon, an executive vice president at CNN Worldwide who oversees HLN. “There are questions about gun control and race relations, racial profiling and the proper role of a neighborhood watch” that make coverage compelling to more viewers than those tune in for trial coverage, he said.

On late Friday morning, eastern time, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, HLN and CNN were all providing live coverage of the defense’s closing arguments. An MSNBC spokeswoman said the network planned ”rolling” coverage of the event. At the broadcast-network newscasts, the trial has been covered gradually, but has rarely been the lead of “CBS Evening News,” “ABC World News with Diane Sawyer” or “NBC Nightly News,” according to the Tyndall Report, a service that tracks the content of the broadcast-network evening newscasts,

Between July 1 and July 5, all three network newscasts covered the trail, but the lead of each telecast was given to coverage of Arizona wildfires or unrest in Egypt, according to Tyndall. CBS led with coverage of the Zimmerman trail on July 5, Tyndall said.

“On the nightly newscasts,  ABC and NBC are filing on a daily basis,” with correspondents  Gutman and Ron Mott, respectively, Andrew Tyndall, who oversees the service, said in an interview, while CBS has used correspondent Mark Strassman “sporadically,” he said, or five times out of the first 14 weekdays of the trail. “By my reckoning, CBS makes the right call here. Zimmerman is rarely rated newsworthy enough to qualify as the nightly news lead item: gay marriage, the hotshot firefighters, the coup in Egypt, the Asiana Airlines crash have all preempted it from the top spot.”

Whether an actual verdict in the trial changes that sentiment remains to be seen.

At one Orlando station,  coverage of the Zimmerman case and trial has usurped the airwaves. WESH, an Orlando, Fla. NBC affiliate owned by Hearst Corp., is “wall to wall,” said Bob Longo, news director at the station. “If the trial is starting at 8:30 a.m., we’re going on at 8:30 a.m. If the trial goes at 9 a.m., we anchor coverage of the trial itself. We’ve got three analysts that we are using” at a studio built near the courthouse with a satellite truck at the ready.  “We’ve got a special set of graphics just for this,” said Longo, who added he was in danger of losing his voice. “”We are pretty intensive in our Zimmerman coverage.”

Trial coverage has garnered upswings in viewership. HLN has posted triple-digit increases in both total viewers as well as audiences between the ages of 25 and 54, the demographic advertisers covet most in news programming.

The gambit among those covering the trial closely is that a verdict will intensify audience interest. HLN’s Safon said the network has about 50 employees at the ready, prepared to mobilize when a verdict is reached. And even when the immediate furor subsides, he said, HLN is likely to continue focusing on the topic.  HLN normally relies on pre-taped programming on weekend nights, he said, “but that is not the case tonight and that is very likely not the case tomorrow.”

At WESH, local interest is enough to fuel justification for extended coverage, said Longo, the news director, who doesn’t feel TV-news treatment of the event has grown sordid. He has seen no more than  few protesters outside the court building, he said. “Local folks seem to have their heads on straight, and justice is being served with the trial.” Even so, WESH has plans to add context and perspective to its coverage of the event. “We will cover the verdict and we will be prepared to offer commentary and conversation based on that.”

WESH viewers want to see the trial to its conclusion, he added. Whether the nation does may be a matter for others to decide.

“This was a real event, a tragic event,” said Longo, ” and “this is giving it closure. Whether CNN and the cable shows should be devoting the amount of time to it instead of stories like Egypt or the plane crash in  San Francisco is probably a question for other folks.”

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