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For California TV Stations, a Trial by Fire

On Saturday night, Oct. 25, KNSD(TV) San Diego's newsroom was tracking a fire "out in the middle of nowhere that wasn't much of anything," says Vice President of News Greg Dawson. The assignment desk sent out a crew. A little after 4 a.m. Sunday, Dawson got the call that the fire was spreading out of control.

By 5 a.m., the NBC-owned station was providing liberal cut-ins. By 6 a.m., it had dropped regular programming entirely. Before long, it had to put out the call to other NBC stations for help. "This was more than anything we had ever seen before," says Dawson.

Offers of crews came quickly from as far away as WJAR(TV) Providence, R.I. "I've been overwhelmed by the support," Dawson says.

"Overwhelmed" might have been the word of the week as Southern California stations battled to cover what Gov. Gray Davis called one of the biggest disasters in the state's history: a series of wildfires in a broad arc extending from the Simi Valley north of Los Angeles to San Bernadino to San Diego. As of last Friday, the fires had consumed hundreds of thousands of acres, destroyed more than 2,400 homes and killed at least 20 people.

In Los Angeles, it took both of Viacom's stations to tell the story. KCBS-TV and independent KCAL(TV) began heavy coverage on Monday morning, claiming the most coverage in the market (a combined 30 hours on Monday and Tuesday) and a "preempt until everyone's safe" policy, according to the duopoly's general manager, Don Corsini.

He says his Viacom bosses gave his stations "the green light to do whatever it takes," including preempting CBS programming. The network was able to push viewers to KCAL's regularly scheduled two-hour evening newscast at 8.

(As it turns out, none of the network-owned stations, in the midst of fall premieres, preempted prime time, but they had frequent news cut-ins and updates. November sweeps began last Thursday, and continuing coverage of the fires could play a big part in deciding winners and losers.)

Viacom's early attention paid off. KCBS-TV's news has lagged behind others in the market for almost two decades, but on Monday, KCBS's 5 p.m. news averaged a 5.7 rating, vs. an October average of a 1.6. "Our response to this disaster and the quality of our coverage," Corsini says, "represent a defining moment for our duopoly in general and KCBS-TV in particular."

On Sunday night, Viacom got a taste of how big a story it would be. KCAL-TV's 9 p.m. fire-dominated newscast did an 8.9 rating. It averages a 2. On Monday, the coverage on the two stations at times pulled a 35% share.

But it appeared, in quality and quantity, that KNBC-TV dominated Los Angeles coverage, and it still was the ratings winner during regularly scheduled news hours.

On the cable side, operators were suffering plenty of damage. Cable or Internet service to around 15,000 Cox subscribers in mountainous parts of eastern and northern San Diego County was interrupted by burnt wires, amps and neighborhood nodes.

And this was a story of neighborhoods or, rather, their destruction, and some stations recognized it better than others. Relatively tiny independent KUSI-TV San Diego was the little fire engine that could. It dropped regular programming for the first two days of the fire and was rewarded with a big boost in viewership.

It began its fire coverage on Sunday, including a live shot from its roof, where staffers were manning hoses with a fire only a hundred yards away. "We called the local fire station," said News Director Steve Cohen, "but they didn't have a truck to spare and said we were on our own." With help from the Drug Enforcement Agency office across the street, the fire near the station was contained.

"Because we were able to be on every minute while the other stations were in a variety of other programming," Cohen said, "the audience sought us out and stayed with us."

KUSI-TV dropped $300,000-$500,000 in ads to go wall-to-wall, although it will make up some of that over time. Although Nielsen numbers in the market for those days are for internal use only because of fire-related sample problems, the viewership spike carried over.

On Tuesday, Oct. 28 in prime time, for instance, the station did a 10.2 rating/15 share with fire coverage at 9-10 p.m. (normal is about a 3/6) to win the time period. In second place was Fox, 8.4/12, which aired the premiere of 24. KUSI-TV's late news did a 10.7/19, double its usual number.

KFWB-TV San Diego went wall-to-wall from early Sunday morning through 11 p.m. Sunday night and also added cut-ins and crawls about evacuations and school closings, according to Bob Ramsey, vice president and general manager.

KNSD(TV) San Diego went wall-to-wall and ad-free throughout Sunday, save for a five-to 10-minute break when News Director Greg Dawson decided to switch to NASCAR coverage. "It was a big fire, but it was still mostly rural areas," he says, "so our plan was to go to NASCAR. But, suddenly, they started to evacuate a major community so we went for five or 10 minutes to NASCAR, then switched back."

Did they get the inevitable complaints from race-car fans? Yes, says Dawson, but he explained that it was a public-safety issue. "Subsequently, the mayor, the sheriff and the fire chief have said that TV and radio are the places the information has to get out." The race wound up a rainout anyway, he adds.

Broadcasters were putting themselves in harm's way to get that information out.

In Los Angeles, where more fires raged, a KNBC-TV microwave truck was engulfed in flames in the Sky Forest area of Lake Arrowhead.

Anchor/reporter Chuck Henry and cameraman Christopher Li were pulled from a blinding cloud of smoke by a firefighter after the two left their stalled van and couldn't see their way out of the cloud. When they returned to the truck, only a burned-out shell remained.

KABC-TV Los Angeles went into the continuous-coverage mode beginning Tuesday, "when things began to get worse," says station spokesman Bill Burton. KABC-TV was on at 4-7 a.m., then 11 a.m.-8 p.m., preempting such syndication powerhouses as Jeopardy, The Oprah Winfrey Show
and Wheel of Fortune
in the process. Burton says the station has not begun to calculate the loss of revenue from the scrapped regular programming and commercials.

No one at the station had lost a home at press time, Burton said, but he woke up last Wednesday to a house that smelled like a barbecue and a half inch of ash on the ground. Outside, ash was falling "like snow."

Additional reporting by John M. Higgins and Paige Albiniak

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.