Saturday, August 21, 2004

Television news fire coverage: 4 solutions for 4 stations

By Jim Knippenberg
Enquirer staff writer

It was a difficult decision and it cost WCPO-TV (Channel 9) an enormous amount of money, but Bill Fee, general manager, said it was the right decision to pre-empt network programming in favor of live coverage of Thursday's Queen City Barrel Co. fire.

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WLWT (Channel 5) faced the evening's toughest decision: Fire or Olympics? It did some of both, with live coverage 6:50 to 8:20 p.m. on the fire, then break-ins as well as an insert box on the screen so it could show both the fire and the Olympics. The station had six cameras on the scene, along with reporters Sherre Paolello, Jonathan Hawgood, Joelle Girone and Juliett Vara.

WKRC-TV (Channel 12) stuck with CBS' primetime lineup because, said general manager Chris Sehring, "our philosophy, for better or worse, was to do cut-ins throughout the night. We decided to go in a different direction from the wall-to-wall coverage."

WXIX (Channel 19) stayed with NFL football and ran a crawl line. Its 10 p.m. news aired live on UPN (WBQC) and was pretty much all fire. After the game the station did a 40-minute fire newscast at 11:25. TV19 had a crew of three reporters and three videographers on the scene.

Channel 9 made the largest commitment. Coverage began with a break-in during the ABC Evening News, then ran without commercials from 7 to 11 p.m. with 12 people on the scene. Reporters Tom McKee and John McQuiston were joined by videographer Mark MacKay on the air. Nine other cameras documented the scene from different angles.

In addition, the station hired a helicopter to shoot from the air and Spanish translator L. Roberto Hernandez to translate anchors Clyde Gray and Carol Williams for the Hispanic population in the fire's neighborhood.

The commitment did improve normal ratings. Overnight numbers show 9 averaged a 9.9 rating and 16 share during the four hours. ABC's regular prime-time lineup averages a 7.4 rating. "Rating" refers to the percentage of total TV houses tuned to a station; a "share" refers to the percentage of turned-on TVs tuned to a specific station.

In the peak 9-10 p.m. viewing hour, Channel 9 pulled an 11.7 rating and a 17 share, translating to 99,918 households. Channel 12's 9-10 p.m. numbers were an 11.2 rating and a 19 share; Channel 5's Olympic coverage won the hour with a 20.3 rating and a 31 share.

Making the decision on wall-to-wall coverage was a no-brainer for Fee: "We made the decision based on health and safety issues. There were chemicals involved and the fire department was telling people to close windows and turn off the air conditioning to avoid fumes. We feel we're obligated to give the public that kind of information. That's why we stayed with it.

"I can't tell you how much money it cost (in ad revenue), but it's significant."

Richard Dyer, Channel 5 general manager, was conflicted about the coverage: "The challenge for us was to find a balance between a story with public health issues and coverage of something as high-profile as the Olympics. We took a lot of complaint calls and we expected that. But when people were told to take cover within a five-mile radius, we felt we had to go to fire coverage with the Olympics in an insert."



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