Wilma Storms Stations

South Florida's physical damage from Hurricane Wilma may have been less than expected, but the financial trauma wreaked by the storm on TV stations—not to mention cable systems—is enormous. Miami stations alone were out about $10 million in lost ad revenue and extra coverage costs.

“Wilma may have only been a Category Three hurricane, but it was a Category Five to the bottom line of the stations in Miami,” says David Boylan, VP/general manager of ABC affiliate WPLG Miami. “There are tremendous costs associated with a storm like this, from overtime to staff staying in hotels to additional satellite capacity.”

The deeper impact, however, could be on November sweeps. Nielsen has stopped measuring audiences in Miami, Ft. Myers and West Palm Beach. Miami needs more than 450 homes reporting for the ratings to be valid and, as of late last week, it had all of five. It could join New Orleans and Biloxi as markets that will not have ratings for the fall sweeps.

In Ft. Myers, where CBS affiliate WINK ran commercial-free for about 24 hours during the storm's most intense period, VP/General Manager Gary W. Gardner believes fall sweeps won't start on Nov. 3 as scheduled.

“We're already scaling back our news special reports and radio promotions [for sweeps],” he says. “What we need to do now is report on the storm, so we'll save those for later.”

Veterans of Hurricanes

Dealing with hurricanes has become old hat for many stations in the area—especially in a season that has seen them devote hundreds of commercial-free hours to storm coverage. WINK, like WPLG and the other stations in the markets, managed to stay on-air through the storm with the help of diesel generators, not to mention some quick thinking. When WPLG News Director Bill Pohovey moved into a new condo three weeks ago, he didn't anticipate using it for a remote shot. But that's what happened when he stuck a microwave antenna on the balcony of his 19th-floor apartment. “We placed a portable microwave link behind the hurricane-proof glass and had a straight shot to our transmitter tower,” he says.

Stations also at times put their competitive urges aside to focus on cobbling together broadcasts. WPLG and Fox station WSVN shared shots taken by each other's helicopters. “When one of the choppers was down for refueling, we would still provide continuous coverage to viewers [with video from WSVN's chopper],” says Boylan.

Stations are also on the financial hook for employees who logged long hours during the storm. Bryan Norcross, chief meteorologist for WFOR, was on the air nearly 30 hours straight, starting early Sunday morning. His secret, he says, was Chloraseptic, water and staying mobile—not hard to do during storm coverage. “Once I sit down at a computer and start working on a graphic,” he says, “I feel myself nodding off.”

Cable Slammed, Too

Cable was broadsided by Wilma as well, with two of Comcast's Florida divisions losing service. Reg Griffin, Comcast Southern region VP, communications, says it's too early to estimate the impact on revenue, but he's sure it will be “significant.” As power returns across South Florida, he says cable will return, too—with Comcast subscribers credited for their days without service.

Until then, customer service has its hands full. Says Griffin, “Our biggest problem seems to be letting customers understand that, when their power is out, their cable is out.”