- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 9, 2002

More than 480,000 Washington-area households tuned into marathon television coverage of the shooting at a Bowie middle school Monday, but sticking with the story cost the stations several hundred thousand dollars in lost advertising revenue.
ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7) was the first station to report a student had been gunned down outside Benjamin Tasker Middle School. News anchor Andrea McCarren delivered the news at 8:25 a.m., roughly 25 minutes after the 13-year-old boy was shot.
The three other major network affiliates soon followed with their own reports. All four stations offered nonstop coverage until 7 p.m., airing few commercials during that 10 hour stretch. WJLA simulcast much of its coverage on sister cable network NewsChannel 8.
Several analysts and the general manager of one station estimates each affiliate lost tens of thousands of dollars.
"They'll never get all that money back," said Robert A. Papper, a Ball State University telecommunications professor who studies the cost of running TV newsrooms.
The stations will have to offer advertisers who planned to run commercials Monday new time slots, although it is unlikely they will have enough open slots, Mr. Papper said.
Nonstop local news coverage is unusual in Washington. The networks blew out regular programming in the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, but the stations and the networks shared responsibility for filling the airtime.
Local news veterans believe the closest the stations have come to offering continuous, commercial-free coverage was following a shooting spree at the Capitol in 1998 and the Air Florida plane crash at the 14th Street Bridge in 1982.
Several station managers said they made the decision to stick with the Bowie shooting on an hour-by-hour basis. Some said they didn't want to abandon the story until it became clear whether the incident was related to the shooting spree that began in Montgomery County Oct. 2 a link police confirmed late Monday afternoon.
"People had questions, and we had a responsibility to provide our viewers with the most accurate information as it became available," said David Roberts, vice president and news director of CBS affiliate WUSA-TV (Channel 9).
Most viewers alternated between NBC affiliate WRC-TV (Channel 4) and Fox affiliate WTTG-TV (Channel 5) during the morning, and WUSA and WRC in the afternoon, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research Inc.
The data show an average 481,021 households tuned into the four stations between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday. Nielsen does not count viewers at places such as offices, college dorms, bars and health clubs.
The stations threw most of their resources into the story, dispatching news crews to the Bowie school, the hospital where the boy was treated and Prince George's County police headquarters. Stations also spent big bucks to keep their news helicopters in the air.
Most of the affiliates sent their big guns to report from the scene. Gordon Peterson and J.C. Hayward presided over WUSA's coverage beginning at noon, while Ms. McCarren logged seven hours on WJLA.
Some viewers complained the marathon coverage was overkill, saying the stations offered little new information throughout the day.
At one point or another, the need to fill airtime forced anchors and reporters on all four stations to speculate.
For example, at about 11:30 a.m. Monday, WUSA anchor and former police reporter Mike Buchanan suggested that if the sniper used a .22 caliber rifle to shoot the boy as some early reports indicated the incident may not have been related to the earlier shootings.
Reporter Gary Reals, stationed outside the Bowie school, interrupted Mr. Buchanan, urging him to not get "bogged down" in the details of the case.
"The fact is, he was shot in the chest by a sniper, and that's what's really important here. There aren't too many people going around shooting people in the chest or the back," Mr. Reals said.
Despite the awkward moments and heavy cost, station managers say they don't regret the decision to stick with the story all day.
"We're prepared to do it again if we have to," said Katherine Green, WTTG's news director.
Clash of the titans
Bill O'Reilly is coming to Washington to take on Rush Limbaugh.
Talk station WJFK-FM (106.7) will begin airing Mr. O'Reilly's syndicated radio show weekdays from noon to 2 p.m., beginning Monday. Mr. Limbaugh's program airs weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. on ABC-owned WMAL-AM (630).
In other cities where the two conservative stars air opposite each other, Mr. Limbaugh usually trounces Mr. O'Reilly in the ratings.
WJFK has been seeking a program to fill the 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. hole in its weekday schedule since August, when the Infinity Broadcasting-owned station moved "The Don and Mike Show" back to afternoon drive-time. No word yet on how WJFK will fill the 11 a.m. to noon and 2 to 3 p.m. time slots.
Questions? Comments? Tips? Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send an e-mail to [email protected]


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