When an earthquake shook Seattle last month, thousands of viewers turned to Cable News Network, Fox News Channel or MSNBC for the latest news. But a smaller crowd was watching the news unfold on an unlikely, but perfectly logical source: Tech TV.
The San Francisco-based technology cable network owned by Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures Inc. isn't slated to launch its new "Tech Live" format-a six-hour weekday block of live technology news-until April 2. But studio space still under construction and a newsroom that isn't fully staffed didn't stop executive news director Harry Fuller from scrapping the regular schedule and throwing the network's resources at a breaking story that affected one of the nation's top technology markets.
Fuller, a seasoned earthquake hand from his days as news director of San Francisco's KPIX-TV, knew just what to do, as did several West Coast earthquake veterans on his staff.
"If I had to go to Boston to cover a blizzard I'd be starting from scratch," he said.
He also had a key asset already in place: Last fall, Tech TV staffed a Seattle bureau with a reporter who has an office at the studios of KOMO-TV, the ABC affiliate in Seattle. Tech TV also is part of ABC's national news-gathering network and was able to use video from KOMO.
The deal worked both ways, as Tech TV's Seattle bureau chief Matt Markovich did live shots for ABC affiliates across the U.S. after local affiliate KOMO-TV ran out of reporters. Markovich's report, which used the stationary camera on KOMO's roof, lent serious weight to TechTV's coverage.
Fuller started with general coverage of the damage, then zeroed in on the kind of information most likely to interest his particular viewers. "We really tried to focus on working conditions, businesses, safety or injuries to people."
Tech TV viewers learned of jammed cell phones, a slowdown on the Internet and problems with Seattle's main government Web site. They also received information of a more personal nature, such as tips on how to protect one's own data by keeping copies offsite, or how best to mount equipment to prevent injury.
The network employed a split screen, scrolling bulletins about tech companies across the bottom as studio reports and video of the quake appeared on the top, right-hand side. Additional information appeared on the left side of the screen.
For its part, Cable News Network scored a coup with its earthquake coverage when rival Fox News Channel was unable to get a video feed from the local Fox affiliate until nearly a half hour after the tremor.
The network's coverage began when a CNN producer monitoring Seattle Mayor Paul Schell's press conference on rioting at the prior night's Mardi Gras celebration saw the earthquake unfold live on her monitor. She sounded the alarm almost instantly.
With access to video from three affiliates in Seattle and three others in the earthquake zone, CNN was able to offer live video from two affiliates just four minutes after the quake, according to a network spokesperson. That was two minutes after a live update from former CNN correspondent Jack Hamann, who called in from Seattle.
Like Fuller, Sid Bedingfield, executive vice president of CNN U.S., had to make a snap decision to scrap scheduled programming. In CNN's case, however, that included a carefully planned tribute to departing anchor Bernard Shaw and a 10 p.m. special on the economy.
The tribute was moved to Friday; the special was rescheduled for the following night.
"Bernie is the ultimate hard-news, breaking-news anchor, and we decided to stay with the story," said Bedingfield.
That disappointment aside, after weeks of criticism and speculation over staff layoffs, Bedingfield was more than willing to brag about CNN's performance.
"It's an example of what we want to emphasize about CNN-live coverage," he said.
At FNC, the emphasis was on downplaying the video problems-the result of a cut fiber-optic line-as the type of thing that happens during an earthquake. Instead, executives talked about how much better the network did without video than MSNBC, which went live just after CNN.
In the first half hour after the quake, 656,000 homes tuned in to CNN, for a 0.8 rating, more than the combined tally for FNC and MSNBC. FNC scored a 0.5 with 323,000 households, compared to MSNBC's 0.3 and 220,000 households. Ratings for all three networks increased as awareness of the quake spread:
From 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., the 80-million-household CNN came out on top, outstripping both its rivals with a 1.5 rating and 1.2 million homes. FNC, with a 60-million-home universe, scored a 0.7 with 451,000 households and the 63-million-household MSNBC scored a 0.6 with 385,000 households.
The 24-hour period tells a slightly different tale. FNC averaged 0.6 with 370,000 households, CNN a 0.6 with 478,000 households and MSNBC a 0.4 and 224,000 households.
But MSNBC spokesman Mark O'Connor said those numbers don't tell the whole story.
"We were wall-to-wall with it much more than any of our competitors," he said. "As far as breaking the story and getting the first pictures up, we were right on par with CNN."