Monday, October 08, 2001

Reds, golf pre-empted for war

        When Cincinnati Reds fans didn't find Sunday's baseball game on WLW-AM (700), they quickly realized the gravity of the situation. America was at war.

        For the first time in decades, the Reds were moved off their flagship station so WLW-AM could broadcast ABC News coverage of the U.S. counter-strike against military and terrorists' targets in Afghanistan.

        “Certainly the Reds are very important to us, but our country is at war, and it's also our responsibility to provide coverage of that,” says Darryl Parks, operations director for Clear Channel's four AM stations here.

        The Reds season finale was moved to sister station WSAI-AM (1530), another 50,000-watt station, minutes before the Inside Pitch pregame show.

        John Allen, Cincinnati Reds chief operating officer, gave permission for the switch, Mr. Parks says.

        “John Allen was notified, and he certainly understood the importance of what was going on,” Mr. Parks says.

        But not all Bengals fans also understood the importance of what was going on — or cared.

        WKRC-TV (Channel 12) received many complaints from football fans when Dan Rather's CBS' reports pre-empted the opening minutes of the Bengals-Steelers game from Pittsburgh. Others called to protest that Channel 12, the city's No. 1 local news station, was carrying the Bengals 16-7 loss to the Steelers instead of war coverage.

        “You had a group of people who weren't happy we were doing football, and you had a group of people who weren't happy that we weren't doing news. But the football callers outnumbered the war callers,” says Elbert Tucker, Channel 12 news director.

        Mr. Tucker says he was “kind of surprised” that CBS didn't pre-empt NFL games for breaking news. He also wasn't happy with the lack of CBS news updates, so Channel 12 broadcast “news ticker” headlines at the bottom of the screen every 15 minutes during the game.

        ABC affiliate WCPO-TV (Channel 9) stayed with the story all afternoon, pre-empting the U.S.-Jamaica World Cup soccer qualifying game and the LPGA World Championship.

        NBC's WLWT (Channel 5) skipped the UAW-GM Quality 500 NASCAR race from Concord, N.C., but ended news coverage at 4:30 p.m. to air the extreme sports Gravity Games taped Sept. 1-9 in Providence, R.I.

        Fox's WXIX-TV (Channel 19) broadcast the Tampa Bay-Green Bay NFL game at 4 p.m., then headed straight into a movie, There's Something About Mary.

        ABC, NBC and CBS resumed live coverage 7-9 p.m.

        Unlike the breaking news coverage on Sept. 11, after the four jet hijackings, the prime-time coverage Sunday was interrupted by commercials for Burger King, Tropicana Orange Juice, Rent-A-Center and other sponsors. The networks also used the news special to promote Survivor, ER, The Practice, Ed, Alias, Family Law and othershows.

        Another difference from Sept. 11 was the lack of pictures from Afghanistan, which was attacked at night.

        The networks only had grainy green video of white flashes in the night sky from the Qatar-based independent television network Al-Jazeera.So the networks relied on reports from correspondents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some over grainy video phones.

        “In the darkness, damage was difficult to assess,” said CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason from CBS News headquarters in New York. “The full extent of the damage should be visible in the morning.”

        Yet when morning came halway around the world, the networks abandoned their coverage. Peter Jennings noted it was 5:57 a.m. in Pakistan ashe was signing off just before 9 p.m., so ABC could air its new hit series, Alias, and The Practice.

        Shortly after 8 p.m., veteran newsman Walter Cronkite appeared at the CBS anchor desk with Mr. Rather and Ed Bradley during a two-hour special broadcast of 60 Minutes. Mr. Cronkite had been scheduled at that hour to open the 53rd Annual Prime-time Emmys telecast, which was canceled earlier in the day.

        As they chatted, Mr. Bradley asked Mr. Cronkite if Sunday's events were what he had expected.

        “I don't know how well we hit our targets. I don't know how well we isolated the population around those targets,” Mr. Cronkite replied.

        It was a sentiment that many Americas shared. Despite the intensive TV coverage, even the most obsessive viewers really didn't know how successful the allied counter-strikes were Sunday.

        And if the Gulf War is any indication, it may be days before members of the media can accurately assess the impact of the attack — unlike the immediacy of the Sept. 11 strike on the United States.


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