ABC News Hurt by Breaking News Snafus
NEW YORK (AP) - ABC News offers the latest example of how the reputations of television news organizations can rise or fall in the time it takes to flick a remote control.
The network responded slowly at the outset of the year's two biggest stories - the outbreak of war in Iraq and the space shuttle explosion - and compounded it with a technical goof that left local stations scrambling to fill dead air in the war's opening hours.
Both nights, viewers swiftly turned elsewhere for news, and questions linger about whether that will have long-term repercussions.
``For the viewer that's looking for breaking news coverage and has trusted ABC over the years, they start asking themselves if that's the right decision,'' said Bruce Baker, executive vice president of Cox Television and head of ABC's affiliate relations board.
``I think there is some damage and it's going to take awhile to overcome that damage,'' said Baker, whose company owns ABC stations in Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta and Orlando, Fla.
ABC News has acknowledged the mistakes and said it has already made changes to prevent a recurrence.
The initial horror and mystery of the space shuttle's disintegration came through videotape of a white streak in the sky over Texas splintering into several pieces. ABC's rivals played the tape over and over, in some cases stealing the signals from other networks.
ABC went 45 minutes without those pictures. And it had to rush to retrieve chief anchor Peter Jennings, who was two hours outside of New York City when the story broke. (He wasn't alone: NBC's Tom Brokaw was snorkeling in the tropics.)
On March 19, after the first bombs hit Baghdad, ABC was more than 10 minutes behind CBS and NBC in breaking into regular programming to report the news. Jennings wasn't at his anchor desk until a half-hour after Brokaw and CBS' Dan Rather.
Mere minutes, it may seem, but an eternity to people used to news on demand.
``When there is an emergency, people are hungry for what's going on,'' said Alan Bell, president of Freedom Broadcasting, which owns ABC stations in Chattanooga, Tenn., Providence, R.I., and Lansing, Mich. ``They have remote controls with 150 different choices, and they're going to use them.''
The affiliates were more understanding of the problems on Feb. 1, since ABC doesn't normally have a news broadcast on Saturday mornings.
They were less so with the war's start, coming less than two hours after the expiration of President Bush's 48-hour deadline for Saddam Hussein. Not only wasn't ABC ready, but one of its first experts on the air, Tony Cordesman, seemed visibly surprised.
``There were a number of factors that contributed to that,'' said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. ``But at the end of the day, we should be ready to go and we weren't as prepared as I would like us to be.''
Once on the air, ABC notified its affiliates that it would continue a special report after 11 p.m. ET, when the network usually breaks for local news.
Instead, Jennings signed off.
Many stations had already sent their local news teams home. They scrambled for replacements behind a blank screen. WTVC-TV in Chattanooga slapped on a repeat of its 6 p.m. news. WSB-TV in Atlanta switched to CNN's news. The affiliates were so angry that ABC President Alex Wallau called many to apologize the next day.
``It's unprofessional,'' Bell said. ``It speaks to a phenomenal amount of inexperience in handling these issues. Where the cracks in the wallpaper and the seams show in an organization is in a time of crisis.''
On both big news days, ABC was a distant third in the ratings behind NBC and CBS. Usually, news viewers tune to broadcast special reports in about the same ratio as they watch the evening news, where ABC is a close second to NBC.
Apparently, a lot of people tried ABC those days and found it wanting.
Times are clearly tense there. When technical problems marred the beginning of ``Good Morning America'' one day last week, ABC News President David Westin called the control room to dress down the producer.
The wartime problems were baffling to Baker, particularly since two days earlier the network aired a well-received prime-time special setting the stage for war. And he is pleased with the quality of coverage since.
``The irony is that I think we were better prepared than anybody to cover the war,'' Schneider said. ``We think our preparation has been borne out in our ongoing coverage of this war, which has been nothing short of excellent.''
The network has shown its chops in the recent past, winning a Peabody Award for its Sept. 11 coverage.
So what went wrong?
Some close to the situation have pointed to a lack of experience in senior production jobs backing up Westin, a lawyer by training. Westin's highly respected top deputy, Paul Friedman, quit in mid-February.
Westin hired former CNN President Rick Kaplan to oversee war coverage. Kaplan was once an award-winning ABC News producer, although out of the control room for a few years.
``This place is teeming with experienced people - experienced executives, experienced producers,'' Schneider said. ``I think that has nothing to do with it.''
He also dismisses the idea of lingering morale problems. Parent Walt Disney Co.'s long-term commitment to news was questioned over the past year when it sought to bump Ted Koppel for David Letterman, and discussed a merger that would have left ABC News a junior partner to CNN.
RoseAnn Shannon, news director at Omaha's KETV and head of an ABC news director advisory board, said she had concerns that cutting corners for financial reasons left ABC News understaffed at key times. But she said she's convinced ABC is committed to correcting any problems.
``Logic would tell you that you have to have a consistent news product and I'm not sure that a couple of incidents would indicate to viewers that they can't trust you,'' Shannon said. ``But they do have to work on it.''