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TV stations find balance is tricky

March 25, 2003

Difficult to choose between war coverage, regular programs

By Jim Kershner
The Spokesman-Review

Local TV stations have been walking a delicate line between providing timely war coverage and providing regular entertainment fare.

The result so far has been a patchwork of NCAA basketball, Oscar glamour and live battles from Umm Qasr.

And TV stations get complaints no matter which way they go.

“Some people are calling and saying, why don’t we have the war on?” said Lon Lee, general manager of KHQ-6. “Others call and say, `We can see it (war coverage) on cable. Why don’t you have our soap opera on the air?’”

The networks have been trying to strike a balance, with sometimes choppy results.

“The whole coverage from all of the networks has been more disjointed than anyone imagined,” said Jon Rand, general manager of KAYU-28, the local Fox affiliate.

His station has been running regular programming since mid-day Friday, with occasional breaking news updates as of Monday afternoon. Other stations have gone back and forth as events dictate.

Bud Brown, general manager of KREM-2, said CBS has been in a particularly knotty position because of its NCAA basketball commitment. The basketball games were kicked over to ESPN on Thursday, but they remained mostly on CBS over the weekend.

“I think they are trying to satisfy both sides, cutting in (during basketball or regular programming) when there is a significant event,” Brown said. “They have made it very clear that when there is a significant event or significant push, they will go back (to war coverage). CBS News and their coverage has precedence over the NCAAs.”

Lee said he was surprised by how quickly all of the networks returned to normal programming. Sometimes, however, local affiliates have been allowed to choose which way to go.

For instance, on Friday evening, NBC carried a two-hour block of “Law & Order.” KHQ had the choice of instead airing the war coverage from sister network MSNBC.

“We carried the MSNBC war coverage,” Lee said. “We thought there was more interest in the war coverage.”

Rand said the Fox network has a two-level system for its affiliates. Level one means that all affiliates must carry the war coverage. Rand said they were at level one for several hours on Thursday and Friday. Since then, they have been at level two, which means the affiliates have the option of carrying regular programming. When given the option, KAYU has gone with regular programming.

“Most people who have called have said, `Everyone has war coverage on; why don’t you guys give us something different?,’” Rand said.

After all, Fox has an all-news channel on cable, providing constant war coverage.

But Lee said local stations have to take into consideration that about one-third of the Spokanemarket does not get cable TV. Those viewers have no access to war coverage unless the local network affiliates carry it or unless they have satellite TV.

Lee also said he was surprised by the relatively swift return of commercials to the air. He said many advertisers, both national and local, said in advance that they wanted their ads pulled in the event of the war, just as they did following Sept. 11, 2001.

Many advertisers, but not all, already have asked that their ad spots return to the air.

Brown said that going commercial-free can have a “significant economic impact on a station.”

“But it pales in comparison with the importance of the stories,” he said.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003



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