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Need for news coverage outweighed lost revenue, Pittsburgh TV executives say

Tuesday, September 18, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri and Rob Owen, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

At a time like this, money matters little.

But the television networks and Pittsburgh TV stations are grappling with the reality of nonstop coverage of last week's terrorist attacks: the substantial, some might say tremendous, loss of revenue.

John Howell, general manager of WPXI, estimated it would cost his station "hundreds of thousands of dollars," but he added that he was proud of the coverage delivered by the Big Three and their affiliates, particularly his staff. "It's our responsibility to the viewers" and a reminder that from whom much has been given in terms of broadcasting licenses, much is expected.

Howell said that when he attended a Thursday morning Bible study, everyone talked about where they were when they heard the news -- and then followed with how they immediately got to a TV. "They didn't say they grabbed a newspaper or turned on their computer.

"It's the thing television news can do the best. I'm only proud to be part of it," he said, adding that not only did stations cover the story, but they also actively helped to raise money for the victims.

Everyone acknowledges that discussing lost ad revenue when the nation is grappling with the probable loss of 5,000 Americans -- along with its sense of security -- can seem crass or uncaring. Still, it's a financial fact of life that broadcasters face during a year when the economy has been weak.

The networks have estimated their losses at $50 million to $100 million a day. On the local front, WTAE had planned to air the Pittsburgh Steelers-Cleveland Browns game from Heinz Field. The Sunday night audience for this first regular-season contest, with all its attendant ceremony, would have been enormous, as would have been the revenue from the commercials.

"Let me just say this. Television stations are required to do many things. We've become the electronic hearth nationally and locally in times of crisis," WTAE general manager Jim Hefner said yesterday.

"We have to do what we have to do. Have there been financial repercussions? Absolutely. Has it been a significant amount? Absolutely, but I'm not going to tell you" how much. It's no secret, though, that a Sunday or Monday Steelers game is one of the easiest and most lucrative ad transactions in town.

Asked about whether any of the vast ad inventory can be shown at a later date, or is so time- or subject-sensitive that commercials must be scrapped, Hefner said a "small portion" may be saved.

WTAE yanked commercials for three days, with its executives believing such spots were both inappropriate and potentially harmful to the news coverage itself. "Things were moving so quickly, especially on Tuesday, that you don't want to be in a commercial break and not be able to get to the story," Hefner said.

Dick Singer, regional manager for WPGH and WCWB, said he doesn't know yet how much money last week's lost commercial time cost his stations. WCWB, a WB affiliate, aired coverage Tuesday before returning to regular programming Wednesday. WPGH, a Fox affiliate, aired Fox News Channel coverage through Friday night.

"I don't have numbers yet," Singer said. "We're trying to pull it all together. The impact was pretty substantial, but the reality pales in comparison to the tragedies in New York and Washington. That's money; the tragedy was lives."

Singer said normally when there's an interruption, the station tries to make good by airing the commercials at a later date and time, but that under these conditions, the advertisers may choose to forgo the planned commercials.

Advertisers who simply cancel their schedule of ads won't have to be reimbursed, Singer said, because the stations aren't usually paid until after the commercials run.

Howell and his counterparts at the other stations realize loss of revenue isn't the only expense in following this story. "We don't know what's going to happen. We're doing cut-ins; we're on alert all the time" and facing tens of thousands of dollars in expenses for covering the crash in Somerset County.

KDKA general manager Gary Cozen, for his part, issued this statement: "It's KDKA's responsibility to keep our community informed at times of crisis and disaster, and while last week's events were very costly (due to significant lost advertising revenue and dramatically increased news costs), it is likely there will be much more critical news coverage of this story in the weeks and months ahead."

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