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ABC: We Blew It

While some networks created, borrowed and even stole from other news organizations to get an edge on reporting the Columbia shuttle tragedy, ABC affiliates complained that their network fed them only cartoons.

"When I flipped around the channels, every other network had the story," said a news director for an ABC affiliate who was at home when the story broke. "I called the station and asked, 'Why haven't you taken ABC News?' They told me ABC hadn't sent anything" except cartoons. Among them was Teamo Supremo, which, the news director noted sarcastically, "ABC was not."

Another irate ABC affiliate news director fumed, "I've changed my mind about the CNN merger. ABC needs to get this deal with CNN done to see how to run a 24/7 newsroom."

The network that won a duPont, a Peabody and an Emmy for its spot coverage of 9/11 was caught unprepared for the Saturday-morning disaster and admitted as much last Thursday in a teleconference with unhappy affiliate news directors.

Already disadvantaged as the only major cable or broadcast news operation without a Saturday-morning presence, ABC suffered further from the absence of a fiber-optic line connecting it with its Dallas affiliate, WFAA-TV. The fiber line is an expensive proposition, network insiders say, but CNN was able to use its line to take WFAA-TV's historic video of the shuttle breakup long before ABC did. And many ABC affiliates carried CNN, instead of ABC.

Apology accepted

The network itself organized the teleconference following complaints from affiliates and ABC-owned stations. Westin admitted his own frustration with Saturday's coverage and vowed more funding, better staffing and better training for weekend coverage.

KETV(TV) Omaha, Neb., News Director Rose Ann Shannon, who chairs ABC's affiliate news advisory board, said she came away from the conference encouraged. "I felt ABC acted quickly to address the problems. David Westin called for the meeting, and he did not try to downplay everything. I feel they're making an honest effort to make sure this will not happen again."

Otherwise, CNN and Fox News Channel drew nearly the same-size audience on Feb. 1 for their breaking-news coverage of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. In total-day ratings, both registered a 1.6. CNN attracted slightly more viewers, 1.85 million, vs. Fox's 1.76 million. MSNBC recorded a 0.8 rating with 759,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Ratings spiked in the early afternoon. CNN's ratings peaked at a 3.8 from 11 a.m. ET to noon; Fox News logged a 3.5 rating from noon to 1 p.m.

'Oh my god!'

Broadcast ratings were harder to come by, because commercials were canceled and Nielsen doesn't report non-sustained programming.

CNN's impressive ratings that day came in part from its quick use of resources that included space-buff anchor Miles O'Brien and the WFAA-TV video.

Because of the Challenger loss in 1986, most networks watch shuttle takeoffs closely—the "hot stand-by" it is called. After Columbia, notes Al Ortiz, CBS's executive producer and director of special events, the network will add staff to landings, too.

But it was MSNBC that was the first of the nets to report problems with the shuttle, and the NBC networks and stations had their own video—albeit not live—from NBC-owned KXAS-TV Dallas. Most of the networks followed MSNBC within seconds or minutes. MSNBC correspondent Jay Barbree routinely stakes out Cape Canaveral during shuttle launches and landings.

CBS correspondent Bill Harwood says he hasn't missed a launch or landing since the 1980s and commented that "there have been other times when communications have dropped out before—for several minutes—but this one seemed different."

Exchanging e-mail with other space journalists while waiting for word of the landing, Harwood says, a Texas colleague told him that debris had come off the shuttle there. "He wrote OMG!!!!!!! [Oh my God] I wrote back, 'Are you serious?' But those of us who know the shuttle knew they were all gone. I called New York and said we've got to get on the air."

Still, the networks had their setbacks. Dan Rather was the victim of an unfortunate prank call and—despite being insulted by the caller—handled it with relative grace.

And, while CNN insisted its coverage was ably anchored by O'Brien, the revelation that Aaron Brown, frequently identified as the network's lead anchor, remained at a Palm Springs, Calif., charity golf tournament during the initial stages of the crisis, proved embarrassing for the network on a day when CNN was otherwise triumphant.

Brown's explanations only seemed to deepen the embarrassment, particularly when contrasted with NBC front man Tom Brokaw's relatively rapid return from a Caribbean diving vacation to join Big Three peers Dan Rather and Peter Jennings at their respective anchor desks. Shepard Smith, a main Fox anchor with his own weeknight show, spent hours that Saturday anchoring for Fox as well.