Network coverage of Hurricane Andrew varies in cost, effort

August 28, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

CBS had a soggy Dan Rather in Florida and Louisiana for three days anchoring its coverage. NBC did not think it was worth calling Tom Brokaw in from vacation.

Hurricane Andrew was a huge story, a very big story or only a pretty big one depending on which of the traditional networks you watched this week.

Not too surprisingly the network assessments of Andrew yesterday, after the storm had spent itself, coincided with the commitment each had made earlier in the week to covering it.

"I think there were differences in the coverage among the networks," said Steve Friedman, the executive producer of "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw." "CBS clearly did the most and got the most out of it. . . . I treated it as what I thought it was worth, which was about nine minutes of the show a day for three days. . . . And ABC was somewhere in the middle."

Though the networks were unwilling to fix a price tag on their coverage, informed estimates by producers ranged from about $300,000 to $400,000 a day extra for NBC to cover the story to about $600,000 to $750,000 a day spent on coverage by CBS.

"It was really not a tremendous budget buster," Friedman said, confirming the $300,000 to $400,000 estimate for his network. "It's domestic. It's in a place where you have [affiliate] stations and [bureau] people. That wasn't the consideration. The question is how much do you do to it and how much do you give to it.

"Again, CBS clearly decided to build its evening news and "48 Hours" around it and make the hurricane its story."

The extra CBS effort involved sending correspondents and support staff from around the country and producing a "48 Hours" special on the hurricane Wednesday night.

"It wasn't as big as the Gulf War or the conventions in terms of resources, but, outside of that, I think it was the biggest story of the year for us," said Tom Goodman, director of communications for CBS News.

Goodman said that in addition to Rather, who was vacationing in the area, CBS sent correspondents, producers and support staff from New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Denver. He said the network had 13 correspondents reporting on-site in Florida and Louisiana.

CBS also sent KU-Band and other satellite trucks, which have the capability of becoming instant receiving and sending stations, into Florida and Louisiana. Further expenses were incurred when the storm Monday knocked out WCIX-TV, the CBS owned-and-operated station in Miami, and the network switched from satellite technology to fiber optics for transmission of its evening newscast. "Dan Rather was broadcasting from an AT&T switching station Monday night," Goodman said.

While it is a big mistake to judge a network's commitment to a news event by whether or not an anchorman or anchorwoman is dispatched to cover the story, it is true that more resources tend to be deployed to stories that have anchors on-site. And while it is an even bigger mistake to confuse personalities with news coverage, network reporting of Hurricane Andrew cannot be assessed with out some discussion of Rather.

"I think another reason for the CBS decision [to go all out] was Rather's history," Friedman said referring to Hurricane Carla and Rather's coverage of it as a local reporter in September, 1961, for KHOU-TV in Houston. Rather's marathon performance earned him a network job.

In another marathon performance, Rather was at his most

Ratheresque by Wednesday's evening newscast -- soggy, his hair plastered down on one side, coining phrases, such as

"highway of hurt" to describe the path of the storm through Louisiana.

NBC's Friedman said he did not think hurricane coverage "is the way you build an audience for your newscast." But, as over-the-top as Rather's coverage might seem to some in such a situation, it does reinforce the promotional message network and local stations repeatedly try to send their viewers, which is that their anchors and reporters are everywhere, risking all to bring them the news.

CNN sent 12 correspondents to cover the story. Reporters and crews came from Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Washington, according to Su-Lin Cheng, a spokeswoman for the cable network. Cheng said the network had 50 people "in the field" working the story, but declined to discuss cost estimates pegged by others in the $350,000-a-day range.

ABC, meanwhile, which matched CBS in time devoted to the story during its evening newscasts, declined to discuss its commitment to covering Andrew.

"It's our policy never to discuss how much was spent on coverage," said Teri Everett, manager of public relations for ABC News.

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