Suddenly, all war news all the time

Competition leads to coverage with `big game' approach


March 19, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

American television yesterday shifted into overdrive both behind the scenes and on-screen as the nation headed toward what seems like certain war with Iraq.

While the period of suspended animation between President Bush's ultimatum to Saddam Hussein Monday and the anticipated start of hostilities might be an unsettling time for many people, it is exactly the kind of promotional period before a big event that the television industry loves.

"I'm not being flip, because ultimately we are talking about a war. But since Monday night, the sense of anticipation, the tone and the build-up of coverage, especially on the all-news cable channels, is like, `Coming soon, the final episode of Seinfeld or the next American Idol,' said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

In terms of traditional television journalism, the major networks yesterday were positioning themselves to deliver all-out news coverage that would pre-empt regularly scheduled programming for several days and nights once bombs fell. As of press time last night, there were no reports of an attack by either side.

ABC News president David Westin told his division yesterday that the network's commitment to reporting hostilities with Iraq could make for "the largest single coverage event in the history of ABC News," according to Su-Lin Cheng-Nichols, a spokesperson for the network's news division.

ABC News broke from the gate faster and harder than anyone else, pre-empting all prime-time programming Monday night for a news special titled When Diplomacy Fails. It followed Bush's 8 p.m. address to the nation.

After a break for local news, ABC came back later in the evening with a strong Nightline report featuring Ted Koppel in Kuwait with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Koppel watched Bush's speech with the commander of the division and then interviewed him about his reaction to it.

Network and cable news executives faced decisions on several fronts yesterday. One involved the correspondents traveling with U.S. forces whose transmissions were being blacked out by the military for periods up to several hours yesterday. While no one was happy with the arrangement, the consensus was that this inability to communicate for some periods of time was the price of the privilege of going with the troops.

Other decisions that had to be made were whether to keep staffers in Iraq and whether to participate in a proposed plan that would have all networks share videotape under an arrangement similar to one forged on 9/11.

CNN put retired anchorman Bernard Shaw on the air last night to discuss the issue of correspondents staying in or leaving Iraq, while it appeared that correspondent Nic Robertson would remain in Baghdad. Shaw, of course, was there to serve as a reminder of CNN's greatest news triumph - Shaw and two other CNN correspondents being in Baghdad and offering live audio commentary as the first bombs of the last gulf war fell on the city.

The most striking aspect of yesterday's coverage was how excessive it had become in its imitation of hyped-up entertainment programming in the less than 12 hours since Bush's ultimatum. The all-news cable channels, which can double and triple their normal audiences during such events, were the worst.

Fox News labeled its telecasts "On the Brink," as the message "Terror Alert High" flashed in a corner of the screen. MSNBC branded its programming "Countdown to War," while it offered a window in the lower right-hand corner of the screen that ticked off the hours and minutes until 8 tonight - the 48th hour since Bush's ultimatum.

The template has been used for decades in such telecasts as "Countdown to the Super Bowl" or "Countdown to the Oscars." The television industry excels when it has a big event with a relatively fixed date and can use all its promotional razzle and on-screen dazzle to build an audience for it.

The razzle and dazzle yesterday included a seemingly endless whip-around of segments featuring military experts using video-game graphics to explain what kinds of weapons would be used by the U.S. military in the first wave of attacks.

Fox even had military experts outside the studio; Oliver North, the retired Marine colonel, was interviewing Marines in Kuwait.

Fox was the most egregiously show biz of the all-news cable channels, with anchorman Shepard Smith saying on-air yesterday afternoon, "It's coming. It's coming soon. If this guy [Saddam Hussein] doesn't get out of there by 8 o'clock Eastern Standard Time tomorrow night, it's coming."

The difference between the overheated war coverage today on cable television and that of the gulf war in 1991 is in part a function of increased competition, according to Thompson.

"Back at the time of the gulf war, we had basically one 24-hour cable news operation, CNN, and it could afford to try and imitate the best journalistic instincts of the broadcast networks," he said.

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