Allison Romano in Broadcasting & Cable…
CNN’s Anderson Cooper, stationed in Mississippi and Louisiana last week, says the devastation surpassed any hurricane he had covered: “It compares to the tsunami in Sri Lanka and some of the things I saw in Sarajevo during the [Balkans] war. It is not a reference point that the U.S. has seen before.”
The images out of New Orleans seemed surreal even to jaded TV news reporters. In New Orleans, gunfire and fights broke out at the Superdome, where thousands of refugees baked in the heat. Looting and random gunfire created a lawless environment. Some news crews traveled with armed guards; others abandoned scenes that got too dangerous.
“Apart from 9/11, this is one of the most astounding events ever to hit our country,” said CNN’s Jeanne Meserve, who described seeing bodies floating through the streets and dogs wrapped in electrical cords. NBC’s Martin Savidge tried to convey the desperation in the Superdome: “The air has gone bad, the toilets are overflowing, tensions are rising among rival gang members inside,” he said. “Things are so bad, state officials are now evacuating the evacuees.”
Maintaining exhaustive coverage will surely stress budgets at stations and national media. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina resembles coverage for a war or after 9/11. News organizations will have to rotate in crews from bureaus—and even stations in other states—to pitch in, stressing already stretched news budgets. Salvaging damaged equipment and buildings will take time and cost millions of dollars. Affected cable operators face lost revenue from displaced subscribers.
But viewers are hungry for the information. Ratings for cable coverage and network news specials have surged. The Weather Channel tripled its usual audience, averaging more than 1 million viewers in prime on nights after the storm. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC’s audience swelled. For the first time in a while, CNN came close to matching Fox News’ ratings in the key 25-54 demographic, according to Nielsen data. Prime time specials on ABC, CBS and NBC attracted better ratings than a typical edition.
Almost everyone agrees it will be months before life returns to normal. Some station employees learned that they had lost their homes from aerial coverage. When Bill Flowers, who owns a traffic-reporting service in Mobile, went up in his plane the day after the storm, his friend, local Fox anchor John Edd Thompson, asked Flowers to check out the damage to his coastal home.
He brought the footage to the station and showed it live. Thompson cried at the images. Says Flowers, “All that was sticking up was a few pilings.”