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American Journalism Review
Pre-emption For News Gets More Painful  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE BUSINESS OF BROADCASTING    
From AJR,   December 1991

Pre-emption For News Gets More Painful   

One suggestion is that the networks alternate coverage.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     


Networks and local stations have always had to make an economic sacrifice to pre-empt regular entertainment programming – and paid commercials – to broadcast major news stories.

But in this era of staff cutbacks and other severe budget restraints, pre-emptions are now seriously debilitating news operations. The significant loss of commercial revenue due to pre-emptions has forced owners of networks and stations to mandate further financial reductions to meet their budgets. Nowadays, that often means additional layoffs and a sharp curtailment in routine news coverage.

As a result, some news executives are wondering whether it is time to re-evaluate the pre-emption process. One suggestion is that the networks

alternate coverage on some basis; not all the time, of course, but in certain situations when everyone is virtually televising the same thing, such as the Clarence Thomas hearings or the Gulf War briefings.

"It's a tough decision because of our competitiveness," says Ed Godfrey, longtime news director at WAVE-TV in Louisville, Kentucky. "Everyone wants to have the strongest news image. So, we all want the big news on the air. If we are doing cooperative ventures, no one comes out on top. But by cooperating, we might be serving the audience better."

The networks feel the most impact when pre-emptions cancel commercials. But that doesn't mean some local stations are not vulnerable. Losing $10,000 or $20,000 over a few days because commercials were canceled may not seem like much to a network that loses $5 million or $6 million in the same amount of time. But to a station in Sioux City or Cheyenne, that money might have paid for another reporter or new newsroom equipment.

Both the networks and local stations eventually recover some advertising revenue by running pre-empted commercials at a later date. But this practice, known in the industry as "making good," seldom recovers all lost revenue. For example, the time period for running the make-good commercials frequently is sold to the advertiser at a much lower rate than the standard one.

The networks will not divulge how much advertising revenue they lost because of the Gulf War. But industry sources estimate that ABC, CBS and NBC dropped up to $50 million each in advertising and coverage costs.

"The Gulf War was a total disaster for us, too," says Jack Shenkan, director of marketing and sales for Hearst Broadcasting, which owns six stations in the top 50 markets. "A lot of advertisers didn't want any make-goods because of it.

"The Thomas hearings were another matter," Shenkan continues. "We'll make up 90 percent of the revenue lost because of pre-emptions of regular programming. Frankly, local news presents stations with the biggest problem from pre-emptions. Advertisers who bought news at 11 don't want to pay for spots that run at 12:10."

In the past, the network news divisions have vociferously objected to any proposal by local stations about cooperating on alternative coverage. It's the expertise and personality of the individual reporters and anchors that distinguish each network's coverage, they reason, and getting the largest audience to watch your network is the ultimate goal.

But the networks have changed radically in recent years. New cost-conscious owners are in charge and their news divisions are no longer sheltered from profit pressure. Nor are they just competing against each other. CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, Conus Communications, Court TV and others often air the same news event, such as the Thomas hearings. And, as those hearings also demonstrated, pre-emptions for news are no longer the highest priority for networks. All three networks televised their scheduled weekend football games – and most of the accompanying commercials – on the weekend of the hearings.

If the networks did agree to alternate coverage during specific circumstances, it's probable some local stations would object. Those stations with strong news reputations might prefer to air the major news event instead of the regularly scheduled program. In those instances, the networks might be able to provide a separate pool feed for affiliates or the station might obtain coverage from another service.

"I could see ourselves pre-empting CBS [entertainment] programming for a news event obtained from a backfeed or another outside source," says Peter Martin, executive vice president of WCAX-TV in Burlington, Vermont. "Obviously, we would make a judgment on the value of the event. But we want to be the station that people instinctively turn to to get news. So, we are willing to take the short-term [revenue] hit for that long-term goal.

"However, the network has similar goals," he adds. "The last thing a network wants to do is be in a position of ceding to the competition [its reputation as] the place to go for information."

But the situation is changing rapidly. Soon another choice may be necessary: the choice of survival. l

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