What began as a seemingly typical hurricane — with shots of reporters fighting to remain standing as Hurricane Katrina hit land — gradually turned into a story few thought anyone would see in the United States, as the cameras spread to capture the biggest natural disaster to hit the country in a century.
The all-news networks exposed the devastation, becoming a key source for disseminating the unfolding catastrophe with communications knocked out in New Orleans and other cities devastated by Katrina. More viewers tuned in as the week wore on, as they showed images of dead bodies lying on the sides of highways, families with infants begging for food and water and looters — some who waved guns at reporters — ruling the streets of the Big Easy.
Some network executives, who were only expecting to cover the hurricane story for about a week, now predict they'll have resources in New Orleans for up to a year or more.
“We're talking about a long-term commitment to the region as we go through reconstruction,” said NBC News vice president of worldwide newsgathering David Verdi. “I anticipate that we'll have extended coverage of the reconstruction for a year at least.”
From video phones to mobile satellite trucks built like tanks, the networks used technology developed to cover the war in Iraq to report on the hurricane's aftermath.
Getting basic necessities like food, water and fuel to production teams forced the networks to build supply lines, not unlike those developed to cover the war in Iraq.
“It's a logistically challenging story with difficult climatic conditions and no infrastructure,” said Fox News Channel vice president of news gathering John Stack, noting the similarities to war coverage.
Security was also a major concern for news organizations. NBC News hired two private-security firms with armed guards to protect its news teams in Louisiana and Mississippi, and teams from Turner Security were dispatched to protect Cable News Network correspondents.
“We're at a higher level of security than we were even yesterday, in the respect that we're hour by hour analyzing the situation,” CNN senior vice president for domestic news operations Jack Womack said.
Most networks said they hadn't begun to calculate the costs for covering the storm.
“It will be a sizable investment,” Stack said. “But when you have a story like this, and it is one subject, the other areas that you normally have to gear up for are not on the screen. We're concentrating on this, and this is where the expenditures are going.”
Stack's network dominated its competitors in ratings last week, with Fox News posting a 2.4 average total-day rating and 2.1 million households from Aug. 28 to 31. CNN averaged a 1.7 rating and 1.5 million households during that period, followed by MSNBC's average 0.7 rating and 572,000 households.
The hurricane story began to pick up steam last Monday (Aug. 29), as reporters from the all-news networks and The Weather Channel panned out across the Gulf region, capturing graphic, and sometimes humorous shots of reporters braving winds of more than 100 miles per hour to demonstrate the force of the storm.
And by Tuesday morning — even in New Orleans, where flood waters hadn't yet broken through levees guarding the city — the scale of the devastation reaped by the storm wasn't yet clear.
“And then as the cameras began to spread and people began to make their way out, it became clear that this storm was much worse than we first thought,” Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith — whose team reported from the heart of the French Quarter when the hurricane hit New Orleans — recalled in a report last Thursday. “Then the levee broke on 17th Street and what we thought was they were trying to save a levee. What we now know, they were trying to save a city and what now appears to be they lost that battle.”
While CBS, ABC and NBC ran some primetime specials last week covering Katrina, the all-news networks ran wall-to-wall coverage.
FOX LED RATINGS
Fox led the networks in ratings, even though by Wednesday it had returned to running taped programming at 11 p.m. ET, beginning with repeats of the 8 p.m. telecast of The O'Reilly Factor.
“Right now, we felt that a lot of the developments are unveiled in daylight with aerials and helicopter visuals,” Stack said.
MSNBC also returned to taped programming at midnight, while CNN had anchors running live updates in addition to some taped segments during the overnight hours. That gave CNN one scoop late Wednesday, when it ran video of the first buses containing evacuees from the Louisiana Superdome arriving at the Astrodome in Houston, including two “renegade” buses that had been apparently commandeered by people in New Orleans.
“We think this is a 24-hour story still,” CNN's Womack said last Thursday. “We're going to sustain that — we'll make a judgment on that every day.”