News interrupts networks' plan to get back on schedule

January 23, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Faced with rising multimillion-dollar losses and recent ratings that show a growing appetite for a break from war coverage, the television networks sought yesterday a return to a near-normal schedule of entertainment programs.

But the Persian Gulf war did not cooperate.

An Iraqi missile slammed into a residential neighborhood in Tel Aviv at 1:37 yesterday afternoon (EST). And shortly after the first pictures of bloody victims -- cleared by the Israeli censors -- started showing up on CNN and NBC about 2:20 p.m., ABC and CBS interrupted soap operas to join the story.

ABC came on about 2:25, while CBS held out until the half-hour break in "Guiding Light" at 2:30.

But Israeli censors denied NBC use of live satellites during its evening newscast yesterday after the network violated that nation's broadcasting ground rules in its report from Tel Aviv.

Correspondent Martin Fletcher reported casualty figures without government approval, saying that 60 people were injured in the missile attack.

Following a request from Israel, Mr. Fletcher submitted a written apology to the Israeli government, and NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw apologized on the air, calling the unapproved transmission "unknowing."

NBC's use of satellites for live transmissions was fully restored by 7 last night.

All three networks joined CNN in live coverage of a Pentagon news briefing after the attack on Tel Aviv. But by 3 o'clock, CBS bailed out for its "Schoolbreak Special," with NBC and ABC joining by 3:15.

NBC had made the decision earlier in the day to skip live coverage of military briefings in favor of entertainment programming.

CBS and ABC, which also had planned to pull back on war coverage, left the morning briefing before it was over.

C-SPAN, which has been running almost non-stop, gulf-related programming, broke away from the war on both C-SPAN and C-SPAN II to pick up a conference on the Baltic states and a congressional budget hearing. Even CNN took its first real break from gulf coverage since last Wednesday when it went live to Moscow at noon to cover a speech by Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Part of what the networks were reacting to were Sunday ratings that showed record audiences for football and big ratings for prime-time entertainment.

Network executives have estimated that one night without entertainment programming costs each network between $3 million and $4 million in lost gross advertising.

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