(Above, a YouTube video of the fires in Canyon Country, via deadlesa For more YouTube videos of the Southern California wildfires, go here.)
Los Angeles' local TV stations once again went virtually wall-to-wall on Monday with coverage of the region's wildfires -- and potentially lost hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result.
By dropping network and/or syndicated fare for most of the day (until primetime), KCBS, KNBC, KABC and other outfits stood to lose at least $400,000. But as I write in today's Variety, general managers and news directors see that as the price of covering news in Southern California. Natural disasters are simply a way of life.
"Los Angeles never disappoints when it comes to drama," says KNBC news director Bob Long.
Local stations spent most of Sunday and Monday covering the fires, breaking only for primetime. On Sunday, KCBS and KTTV took advantage of their sister stations (KCAL and KCOP, respectively) to continue covering the story even after switching to NFL coverage.
By primetime on Sunday, KCAL was the only station with news for all four hours -- and scored big in the ratings as a result. The station will probably see huge Monday night results as well.
"We have to cover it," says KCBS/KCAL general manager Don Corsini. "This is why we do news. Unfortunately, it's the name of the game. You're doing the right thing with the coverage."
To minimize disruption, the stations have been using their digital feeds in order to juggle programming; Long says KNBC.com reached over a million hits thanks to coverage of the blazes.
"People who wanted to follow our coverage were able to do so," Long says. "That's not an option I would have had even a few years ago. We're all discovering these new platforms and using them in different ways."
Meanwhile, with so many fires hitting the region hard at the same time, maxed-out local TV news teams put aside some of their competitive ways in order to pool video coverage:
In the process, local TV helicopters were stationed all over the region, rather than duplicating coverage of the same fire.
It's usually done ad hoc, with a couple of stations at a time," Long said. "Most of us only operate one machine, and we obviously can't be everywhere at once. We have long-standing arrangements with some of our colleagues. After all, helicopters have to land and get fuel. We'll protect a competitor while they're gassing up, and expect the same will be done for us."
Long says the dynamic changes from time-to-time - occasionally, one of the local stations will get too competitive and refuse to cooperate - but "mostly we get along pretty well."
"In a situation like this, it's nonsense to fall back on a competitive attitude," Long said. "It's about public safety and the safety of our own people. And it's not safe to stack a bunch of helicopters over one fire."
Long knows very well the danger of news crews covering out-of-control fires. During the last major regional fire disaster in 2003, KNBC lost a news truck - and news reporter Chuck Henry was nearly killed, along with his cameraman. Because of the risks, Long said his news team is required to take classes on how to cover the story.
"Almost all the fire agencies offer training, and this company insists on it," Long said. "Our crews went through some training very recently." Long also noted that covering fires is nothing new to most of his staff, given the regular natural disasters here.
"Sadly, we get to train all the time," he said.
Over at KCBS and KCAL, Corsini said even the resources of two TV stations and an expanded news team hasn't been enough to cover the scope of the story.
"Clearly this requires a lot of resources, and frankly, more resources than we have in order to be in every single spot at the same time," Corsini said. "But we're doing the best we can with the crews and reporters that we have in the field."
What's more, many staffers - including the two stations' news director, Nancy Bauer Gonzales - were having to deal with their own homes being evacuated.
Long, meanwhile, has coined a new nickname (borrowed from Walter Cronkite, who earned the moniker from his marathon rocket launch telecasts) for anchor Beverly White: ``Iron Butt.'' White, who usually anchors the weekend "Today in L.A." 7 a.m. telecasts, sat in the anchor chair until the start of "Sunday Night Football."
"These anchors really earn their keep sitting at a desk, making sense of what is by definition chaos," Long said. As for the news team as a whole, "Everyone who knows how to do something really useful is out there."