Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of commercial inventory — at both the network and local levels — were pulled last Tuesday through Friday, as an unprecedented number of cable networks carried live news coverage of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Typically the news channels and the Big Four broadcast networks pre-empt their regular fare for major breaking news. But last week was the first time that the major media conglomerates — AOL Time Warner Inc., The Walt Disney Co., News Corp. and Viacom Inc. — bumped programming from their entertainment channels in order to telecast coverage from their news organizations for the better part of two days.
The entertainment networks were back to their regular schedules by Wednesday evening.
The combined broadcast and cable network national pre-emptions probably topped $200 million for Tuesday and Wednesday alone, without factoring in local disruptions, some cable-industry sources estimated.
"I don't think anybody can tell yet" how much time and money is actually involved, said one executive who sells time on several networks. The potential impact of redeployed avails on the already weak scatter market "needs to be figured out."
"I'm really uncomfortable talking about this," given the magnitude of the tragedy, the source added.
Another cable executive agreed. "I don't think anyone's thought about it in those terms," he said.
Sources at various networks noted that even after the commercial-free phase, many advertisers may ask to pull their advertising temporarily for "inappropriate content," such as depressing images of the recovery effort.
Marketers may also want to hold back their spots for "inappropriate creative," such as travel messages from airlines, commercials for theatrical films with terrorism-related storylines — such as Warner Bros.' upcoming Collateral Damage
— or films with promotion that was to include scenes of the World Trade Center, such as Sony Pictures' Men in Black 2
and Columbia Pictures' Spider-Man.
Coverage from Cable News Network last week was simulcast on Turner Broadcasting System Inc.'s CNN Headline News, Turner Network Television, TBS Superstation and Turner South. ABC News coverage appeared on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Classic at various points, while CBS News programming appeared on MTV: Music Television, VH1 and Black Entertainment Television.
Fox News Channel's coverage of the tragedy ran on FX, Fox Sports Net and Fox Family Channel.
A Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc. spokesman emphasized last week that whenever CNN has gone commercial-free in the past in favor of breaking news, its "advertisers have been universally supportive and have generally agreed to the 're-expressing' [rescheduling] of their units."
While the coverage of the terrorist attacks — and the attendant pre-emptions — have been much more extensive than with past news events, the TBSI spokesman said: "We feel it's inappropriate to discuss ad revenues at this point, except to say revenue was not a calculator" in the decision.
Headline News, which had carried CNN's feed, resumed its own coverage last Wednesday night, but CNNfn and CNN Airport Network continued to air CNN coverage.
At Time Warner CityCable, the ad-sales arm of Time Warner Cable of New York, senior vice president and general manager Steve Berman said discussions have yet to begin about how to redeploy the avails preempted by the wall-to-wall news coverage.
"We just got back [in the office] today, so we haven't really got into that yet," Berman said last Thursday. "I've got a lot of [voice mail] messages" to catch up on, he added.
In addition to the system's local units being yanked, the MSO's New York 1 News also covered the story ad-free.
Fox Cable Networks Group CEO Jeff Shell said last Wednesday that the decisions to run FNC coverage across its other networks "were completely made on the basis of the public interest. We never thought for a second about the economics.
"We haven't started to quantify that yet, but I don't think it's going to be significant. If it is, so be it.
"I'm sure our advertiser and affiliate partners will move units around" to make up for the schedule disruptions, he added.
Some of the Fox networks, like National Geographic Channel, returned to regular family fare on Tuesday evening, he said. Fox Sports Net, which still lacks sports events to cover, switched to "special editions of regular shows" on Wednesday. They mainly explored how the sports world was coping with the tragedies.
A Fox Family executive said the impact there was "very minimal," since it had pre-empted just three hours of its schedule on Tuesday afternoon for the Fox News feed.
Fox Cable's Shell said FX executives are looking at upcoming movies and series episodes to delete any programming whose storylines involve terrorists, for instance.
"Sometimes we pull spots we believe the client will deem inappropriate," said one cable network spokesman who declined attribution. That happened last week, when phone communications in New York were disrupted well into the week, he added.
Various networks' blanket news coverage also spilled over onto their Web sites. Even such non-news outlets as Discovery Channel and ESPN updated news developments, and displaced most Web advertisements over much of the first two days.
Scripps Networks' Home & Garden Television and Food Network suspended programming until Wednesday evening, as an announcement on the channel and on their Web sites referred to the "tragic events." The Web sites directed viewers to news coverage on E.W. Scripps Co.-owned newspaper and TV-station Web sites.
Elsewhere, Lifetime Television's site suggested that users check "your preferred news source" for updates on the "monumental tragedy [that] has struck our nation." Oxygen Media's Web site asked its users to chat about the terrorist attack on its message boards.