Station Fire, Station Fail


What can local TV stations learn from Stationgate? Should they be held more accountable when it comes to informing the public about its city burning to the ground? Yes. Were viewers, bloggers, journalists, and tweeters overreacting for calling out the networks on their non-coverage of the impending doom? No.

TV and radio are old media. But, they’re still the first place that people turn when something happens. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. 9/11. There is a responsibility for stations to serve the citizens when they need it most. This includes weekends when your back porch is engulfed in a ring of fire. It is more important than any car chase, funeral procession, or award show after party interview about a $20,000 dress.

Local network executives, who today defended their “coverage” of the “brush fires” should be embarrassed. They should be ashamed. They should probably be fired. Next time, at the very least, throw up an on-screen ticker with evacuation information. That way you can still show your precious Hanna Montana.

As for defending your coverage in light of viewer outrage… How dare you. We are the reason you exist. We are the customer. And we are always, ALWAYS right.

25 thoughts on “Station Fire, Station Fail”

  1. You can take what I say with a grain of salt, since I work at a TV station, but I find the uproar over the weekend coverage ironic since bloggers (especially the ones here) routinely make fun of TV’s oversaturation of “FIRE WATCH!!1!”

  2. Three notes:

    1. How is it that Twitter was able to send me details of evacuation shelters before network news or network news sites? How is it that LAist, with only one full timer, was able to get this info online before network news with dozens of full time staffers?

    2. During its late night/early am rebroadcast of the 11pm news, Fox still kept up its “LIVE” tag without any sort of “previously recorded” disclaimer, repeating details of a growing threat. This is dangerous stuff, especially had someone acted on old info at such a critical time.

    3. AM radio news, ie 1070 and 980 was also negligently absent. 980 played a cooking show Saturday morning, while 1070 was an infomercial.

    Shameful stuff.

  3. I will have to say that all i heard on 1070 sunday and monday was fire info. perhaps that started after the infomercial you heard on saturday but it was full coverage on 1070 sunday and monday. dont know about today yet . and the tv has been crap. if i am not at home and miss the news im S.O.L.

  4. I have to give credit to KCAL9 for extensive coverage. They appear to be pre-empting some of their regularly scheduled programming, more so than the other network affiliates. I can’t guarantee that everyone will be satisfied with the quality of the coverage and the particular matters upon which they are choosing to focus, but at least they are devoting a lot of time and resources to it. And no, I have no connection to KCAL, and never even watch any of the local tv network affiliates.

  5. Lez, my radio listening was on Saturday around noon, heading back to LA from RPV. Both stations are owned by CBS and are billed as news stations – one should always have news on it (of course, 1070 is about to become a regular ol talk network).

  6. i thought it was the otherway around. 980 ratings have tanked since they started doin the hollywood bit and are going all talk. thats why all the “newscasters” from KFWB 980 have been moved over to KNX 1070. my listening was sunday driving from lancaster to la on the 14 south. and last night driving home from work. not that i needed to hear since i was driving along the 210 from arcadia to sylmar and could have done my own broadcasting. :)

  7. Darleene: I agree that this may seem hypocritical. I’ll admit, I’m usually one of the first to poke fun of news sensationalism. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cover the story at all.

    1. Always cover the big news story.

    2. Never sensationalize it.

  8. Disclosure: I work in television.

    First, while scary and dangerous, it is hyperbole to say they are ignoring the “city burning to the ground” while “your back porch is engulfed in a ring of fire.”

    I’m not sure what you expect them to do. Every news slot is filled with fire coverage. Many stations are not breaking into regular programming for fire coverage? Why? Because they lose money.

    Just you declare television & radio ‘old media’ doesn’t mean they don’t have to make money to pay for the helicopters you so desperately want to see video from.

    Airing regular programming and scheduled news blocks makes money. Uninterrupted live coverage costs a ton of money. To deny the simple facts that television is a business is juvenile.

    The station web sites have a ton of information on their about closures, shelters, maps, etc. More than just linkage like you find on twitter, real content.

    You can’t have you cake and eat it too. On one hand the “viewers, bloggers, journalists, and tweeters” want to watch their television content when they want it, where they want. And you know what, not they get it. You can watch TV live, Tivo it, watch it for free on the web, or even buy it to take with you on your iPod or Zune. All to get viewers happy with their product.

    Now that’s not enough for you. Now you literally want to control the programming and decide what you think the news should be. Let the people have what they want? Is that your request? If so, then it will be all Michael Jackson, all car chases, all celebutante gossip. That’s what the people want and that’s where the ratings are, consistently.

    You want television stations to provide high quality news coverage of live events at the drop of the hat in a city where the number one show is American Idol, the ritualized public humiliation of individuals?

    Get off you moral soapbox and get real. The reverse-911 system is far more effective at reaching people that a television crawl. Police & Deputies with loud speakers are effective. The EAS system can be effective.

    I know it’s trendy to rage against the machine, but if all you are mad about is not running a crawl, it’s a pretty pathetic rant.

  9. cruftbox:

    I understand your need to defend your medium. That’s where you get your paycheck. And yes, hyperbole is what I do – I write for Metblogs, not the L.A. Times. My job here is to call local news out for being a failure in this event.

    Like it or not, the growing chorus seems to agree. TV has failed us in its coverage of these fires. To make the argument that you can find information online does not make evacuees running for shelter feel any more informed.

    With regards to television being a business, I get that. That is precisely the argument here. When the bottom line trumps public safety, you become a problem for the community that depends on you for information. If a network wants to brag about it’s status as a news organization, then it should deliver that news when it happens – not when it’s convenient during your programming schedule. When there is a press conference to declare a disaster area, do you really think you should cut away to Hanna Montana?

    I’ve worked in radio for 13 years. In Florida, we dropped everything at the first sight of a hurricane and provided non-stop coverage. In Indiana, a tornado spotting brought all music to a stop. We’re in the business of broadcasting. This is not about me wanting you to run a ticker or a crawl. This is about viewers – YOUR VIEWERS – wanting more out of you as a news source. When you vehemently defend the non-coverage you provide and tell us to go to a website, it merely drives another nail in the TV coffin.

  10. I can’t believe people are actually defending this shameful lack of coverage! The entire county and beyond is under siege and we’re all choking to death but all that’s been on network TV all day has been soap operas and re-runs of Oprah & People’s Court. Business or not, it’s pathetic… especially when regular programming gets preempted whenever some asshole decides to go on a car chase on the freeway. Now that’s news!

    In times of emergency the local stations should suck it up and provide the vital services the public needs and expects. I don’t think any of us are looking for sensationalized “firestorm 2009” nonsense, but some basic information and regular updates should be what we’re seeing on tv right now, not Oprah.

  11. I think part of this is that the fire turned out to be much bigger & much more aggressive than we’re used to (even though we’re used to quite extreme fire seasons). Media was planning for Fall Fire #1 [insert footage here] and got something much bigger than the standard slot they allotted.

  12. I live in Altadena, and my biggest complaint was that the news was, quite frankly, just lazy. While there may have been some volume of it, it was mainly the same footage repurposed over and over and over again. The fire made its way to Altadena on Friday, and we were evacuated on Saturday, but not once was there any coverage of this. Instead, we saw the same shots of burns in La Canada over and over. Once we evacuated, we kept turning on the news when it was on hoping for an update on what was happening…and we got the same footage again. I swear, CBS must have shown the same interview with their news chopper guy at least 12 times during the weekend. They never once sent anyone in to Altadena for coverage. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that only one small finger of La Canada was impacted, because that was all the coverage that aired.

    Contrast it to the coverage that the fire in RPV got on Thursday night, and I think the frustration is warranted.

  13. It’s the area.. La Cresenta isn’t as sexy as Malibu. If the fire was in Malibu, there would be wall to wall coverage.

  14. Jason: I was totally covering the story and not sensationalizing it. I was also the only web person on Saturday night and could barely get to the bathroom throughout the night — quite a challenge for someone 4 months pregnant. ;-)

  15. I didn’t know Darleene.. Congratulations!

    I honestly don’t find all news outlets at fault here. I thought KCAL9 was doing a pretty good job when they were covering it. I also think most of the online reporting has been good.

    The biggest issue I have is with the live on-air coverage. Some local media were MIA for most of the weekend. I think people just want to know why.

  16. If they ran uninterrupted coverage, I’d understand that that costs money, but they can run it with commercials, no? I think there would be more people wanting to watch fire coverage.. I’m not sure what the contract ramifications with the advertisers are, but I’m sure the local channels would get higher ratings if they ran fire coverage.

  17. Not on my cable system (TWC chs. 9 and 409) — they’re airing the news, and, specifically, news about the fires.

  18. I’m on TWC cable too, and as of 10:30pm last night the Dodger game was still playing live on channel 9. The news is only supposed to be on until 10:30 and your post was made at 10:43… so maybe they aired the news after the game was over? I didn’t check back after 10:30 since it wasn’t on when it was supposed to be.

    Point being, there’s a major emergency going on in Los Angeles and the local news channel opted to hold off on the news so they could air a baseball game instead.

  19. But “hold off on the news” is totally random, since the news happens all day and all night, and the stations have news programs scheduled at specific times during the day and evening for business/ratings/demographic purposes, not because that time of day is somehow a magic time for news events to occur. That’s especially true of fires and other disasters over which we have little or no control.

    In any event, if someone thinks that our local tv stations are failing to cover the fires adequately, they should complain to the station, their elected representatives, and the Federal Communications Commission. TV stations receive their licenses for free. You and I own those airwaves, and they’re worth billions. In return, stations are required to operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” This has been interpreted to mean that the station must cover news and other matters of concern to its local community of license. Stations must keep a file, available for public inspection, containing quarterly reports listing the programming that it believes satisfies this requirement.

    This FCC publication provides some explanation:

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