WITH OIL still rushing into the Gulf of Mexico nearly two months after a deadly explosion aboard a BP-leased rig, television news divisions continue to collectively blanket the story, seizing the opportunity to burnish their brands and hopefully convert a few new viewers.
“This is one of those seminal moments when a network news division proves its worth,” says Rick Kaplan, executive producer of the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric. “This is it.”
Indeed, covering the disaster is as much about news orgs’ fight for relevance at a time when they all face cutbacks and ratings drains, as it is a matter of doing the right thing, executives say. “There is always opportunity,” says Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC World News With Diane Sawyer. “But in this case, I would say the word is much more ‘responsibility.’”
News personnel bristled at a broadside from President Obama, who told Gulf Coast residents during a May 28 visit: “The media may get tired of the story, but we will not.”
“I found Obama’s comments curious,” NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams said during a phone interview from Grand Isle, La., last week. “Often, it is true. And often, politicians are allowed to say it with some gumption and with some moral authority because we’re often guilty. I just thought this time, he had it backward.”
In fact, it was the media that pressured BP to release video of the gusher on the ocean floor, via constant on-air badgering and Freedom of Information Act requests. And according ProgrammingStrategy to the loquacious Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, the administration is watching TV. As Nungesser told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Obama expressed pique that he was learning details of the disaster from CNN.
“I was surprised to hear that my name was invoked in a meeting [with the president],” Cooper says. “But if there’s a lot of media down here, I think that’s a good thing. People here want their stories told; they want the world to witness what’s going on down here.”
News execs plan to stay for some time on the story. It is relatively economical to cover (Williams flew on all-coach Jet- Blue), and viewers are showing their appetite for updates. Real-time video of the oil leak from the ocean floor is one of the most popular links on CBSNews.com.
“This is a real catastrophe,” says CBS News’ Kaplan. “People’s way of life has been destroyed. And it has the potential to be permanent. We can’t let our fellow countrymen down. We have to try to hold BP’s feet to the fire and hold the president accountable. Enough with the great rhetoric. We need to shut the hole and clean the oil out of the water.”
Irrespective of the latest effort to stanch the gusher, the environmental impact will continue for decades. “I don’t think we’re going to have Gulf fatigue in the next three or four weeks,” says Bob Epstein, executive producer of NBC Nightly News. “It’s only getting worse.”
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