Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford Dies, Networks Yawn

CBS, NBC, Choose Jay Leno and Stupid Pet Tricks Over Breaking News Of Death Of A President
CBS told viewers about the death of the 38th president, with a crawling headline while "The Late Show" played on. And that was it. No special report. Can't interrupt the network's $30 million man. Don't deprive us of Stupid Pet Tricks, though that dachsund that could put himself in his cage was pretty damn good.
The network supposedly learned its lesson 10 years ago when there was no anchor in the broadcast center on the Saturday night over Labor Day weekend when Princess Diana died in Paris. NBC and ABC, along with CNN, had blanket coverage. CBS affiliates were left to wallow in their local programming.
Belatedly, CBS scrambled to put on a perfunctory special report anchored by Vince DeMentri, a local anchor in New York who had just finished his newscast.
The TV news division had taken the weekend off, and it showed. Ironically, it was CBS Radio -- with correspondents Adam Raphael in London and Elaine Cobbe in Paris -- that was first with the confirmation that Diana was dead.
But that episode led to wholesale changes at CBS, including having a correspondent in the building at all hours in case the network had to go live. So how does the death of a president not give rise to that? The network had an obit ready to go. It could get its consultants and correspondents on the phone and cobble together some information. Bill Plante, Bob Schieffer and Mark Knoller come quickly to mind.
But it didn't. Once again, the decisionmakers at CBS News decided to go on holiday and turn their Blackeberrys off. When you work at a network, you don't wait until morning to report the news. The radio news division certainly didn't, cranking out three updates an hour all night. Their colleagues at TV couldn't muster anything close to that effort.
NBC could at least claim it had an excuse, namely MSNBC. But rapid channel surfing as news of Ford's death broke betrayed no hint that the network interrupted "The Tonight Show" when it could have simply simulcasted MSNBC to alert viewers in all time zones about what happened. But there was no apparent game plan -- no black book to consult when such an emergency occurs. You can't assume people will automatically gravitate to cable when news breaks. Own the story unless told otherwise. "Today" more than made up for the network's lapses last night, but it was way too late in the game.
The cable networks acquitted themselves well as the news broke. MSNBC had Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell on the phone weighing in. But why couldn't they have done the same on the Peacock?
ABC got lucky, sort of. "Nightline" was on in the East Coast when Ford's death was announced. At least it covered the news in real time, but only to a point. "Jimmy Kimmel Live" went on as scheduled.

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