Persian Gulf war could change the way networks cover news events

Television's Midseason Report -- Michael Hill in L.A.

January 11, 1991|By Michael Hill

LOS ANGELES -- A war over Kuwait has the potential of not only reshaping the political landscape of the Mideast, but also of having similar consequences on the landscape of television, changing all of it in the short term and perhaps the structure of network news coverage in the long term.

In conversations with network executives here this week, it is evident that while a war would clearly draw the nation to its television sets with unprecedented coverage of the first sustained conflict in the post-satellite-linked age, its cost to the industry might be immeasurable.

There's the direct money being paid to support the coverage, much of it to insure constant access to satellites. Currently, all three networks are probably paying about a half-million dollars each every week. That cost will likely rise to about a million or so as the Jan. 15 deadline approaches next week.

Then there's the indirect chaos that could result in the advertising market if the news division takes over hours and hours of air time for covering the conflict.

Some of this programming might be supported by advertising under continuing agreements the news divisions have with certain companies to sponsor special reports should that be deemed appropriate. But lost would be millions of dollars in advertisements bought to run on prime-time entertainment programs before the season began, the so-called "upfront" buying.

The networks did well selling "upfront" time, but those dollars would disappear if the shows were pre-empted for news coverage. And then any new advertising time would be sold in the current advertising market, which is terrible. All of these things could cause substantial monetary losses.

"We're making money now, but the profit margins are razor-thin," said John Sias, ABC network president. "They could disappear very quickly."

The financial winner in this could be CNN, as the cable all-news channel has already sold its advertising time for constant news coverage. So, except for certain of its specific programs -- Larry King, for example -- its advertising revenue should not be affected and its ratings should soar.

None of the network executives suggested that these financial facts would affect the way they cover the story if war does indeed occur.

"You have to do it if you're in the network business," explained Dan Burke, ABC's chairman. "That's what it's about."

To help cut costs, the networks may embark on a growing level of cooperation, more of the type of sharing that was seen last election night, when the networks all used the same exit poll and projection data.

"It worked," said Michael Gartner, NBC news president, of the election night cooperation.

Don't be surprised if similar arrangements come out of the Persian Gulf coverage, with the networks pooling routine coverage and concentrating on distinguishing themselves with expertise and analysis, as well as personalities.

The pool coverage already proposed would be under the control of military officials and those restrictions have drawn the protests of the networks.

'We found the first set of proposals from the Pentagon too restrictive," Sias said, and his news president joined colleagues from NBC, CBS and CNN in a letter to the Pentagon to that effect.

But the eventual structure of network cooperation may well come out of the pool arrangements that are worked out in the Mideast should war break out.

In the short term, there is also the question of what else besides news might be on television if the conflict starts. If it begins at night in the Mideast, as expected, that would be daytime in the United States.

Coverage would undoubtedly be extensive and perhaps continuous for those first hours, maybe even days. But what if it reaches 10 p.m. in the East and the news division has nothing new to report and hands the air time back to entertainment?

ABC entertainment executives this week had their first meeting to consider that possibility, realizing that it would be just as inappropriate to come out of war coverage with a rerun of a sitcom like "Roseanne" as it would be to go to a dramatization of war like 'China Beach."

So the search is on the come up with the proper programs to have standing by, programs that will run with advertising that might be the only revenue coming in to pay all these huge bills.

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