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War coverage & local stations

March 5, 2003

It is a question every TV news director must answer whenever America sends troops abroad: How do you cover something thousands of miles from home like it's in your back yard?

"We have 67 full-time people in this newsroom, and I can say that all 67 know exactly what to do when the war comes," said Regent Ducas, news director of KCTV, Channel 5.

As stations in Kansas City draw up plans to cover a potential war in Iraq, some seem as gung-ho as the networks. KSHB, Channel 41, has built its own in-studio "war set."

KMBC, Channel 9, is taking a more conservative approach. News director Michael Sipes doesn't rule out the possibility that one of his reporters may be sent abroad. His plan, however, is to stick to the tried-and-true approach most TV stations follow in a time of war: video from the networks, supplemented by stories about local families who have loved ones serving abroad.

Sipes said that in one sense, the war in Iraq would not be that different from the 9/11 attacks. After a couple of days of watching the big story nonstop, "people will want to know what else is going on," he said.

While all four news directors emphasized that their war plans are not firm, KSHB already has donned its war paint once, if only for show.

The NBC affiliate on Monday pre-empted its late news for an "Action Against Iraq" special, complete with hometown experts, a foreign correspondent and its in-studio floor map of the Persian Gulf region. The map, which looks almost computer-generated in camera close-ups, will be used as a show-and-tell area to illustrate the progress of troops and pinpoint major skirmishes.

KSHB has assembled a team of eight local experts, many with Persian Gulf War experience, to provide analysis. In addition, its parent company, E.W. Scripps, has hired a foreign correspondent to cover the conflict exclusively for Scripps stations.

"We've been working on this for more than a month," said Channel 41 news director Debbie Bush. "We hope we never have to use it, but if we do we'll be ready."

KCTV, Channel 5, also pre-empted a newscast to carry a special on the countdown to war with Iraq. However, neither it nor KSHB was driven by world events, they said, but by something closer to home -- their Nielsen ratings.

KCTV's Feb. 19 special aired on a Wednesday, typically one of the worst-rated nights of the week for CBS and thus Channel 5. Since it was a special report, the program's rating was left out of the monthlong average for KCTV's 10 p.m. news. Likewise, KSHB's "Action Against Iraq" special aired on Monday -- one of NBC's worst-performing nights -- and likewise won't count against its late news average for the February "sweep," which ended Wednesday.

To some degree, how to cover the war is out of the local news directors' hands because coverage is coordinated by parent companies. Each of these stations is owned by one of the 20 largest station holding groups in the United States.

Take WDAF, Channel 4. It's one of 34 stations owned by Fox Television, a subsidiary of News Corp. and the country's second-largest station group. Bryan McGruder, who became Channel 4's news director in December, said the Fox news directors have held meetings and "made arrangements for some sharing" of resources if war comes.

Like the Scripps stations, Fox stations across the country will share a foreign correspondent. KMBC's and KCTV's parent companies likely will do the same.

Local stations will have much more video to choose from compared with what was available during the gulf war. Take CNN, the only network present for the bombing of Baghdad in 1991. Back then the network offered a single feed to stations through its CNN Newsource service. Now it offers five video feeds and is currently testing a new system, called Pathfire, which will deliver many times that amount of information directly to video servers at the stations.

"They're expecting us to cover them in that first 72 hours," said Jack Womack, executive vice president of CNN in charge of Newsource. "We intend to be on top of it."

In addition, each station belongs to a video news service owned or co-owned by their parent network. It is the TV equivalent of a wire service, supplying news reports and live coverage. The national reporters for these services don't appear on network TV -- just local stations.

With all that to choose from, KMBC's Sipes says he will have plenty of war reporting to pass along to viewers without building a "war set" or calling on local experts.

"The networks are going to have a lot better people, expert-wise, than we would," Sipes said.

Indeed, industry reports say that the major networks have committed hundreds of people to the war effort, at an expense that could easily rise to $40 million per network. Those costs would rise if the fighting continues beyond a few weeks.