July 12, 2005

Networks to break for Discovery launch

By Paul J. Gough

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - When the space shuttle
program roars back into space with a scheduled Wednesday
launch, the high-profile network coverage will be slightly
reminiscent of NASA's heyday -- at least briefly.

While no big network anchors will be on hand at Cape
Canaveral, Fla., for the launch a la Walter Cronkite of the
late 1960s, each of the Big Three is going to break into
regular daytime programing Wednesday afternoon to televise the
launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery after a two-year
grounding following the Feb. 1, 2003, crash of Columbia that
killed seven astronauts. ABC, CBS and NBC will have their
anchors hosting the brief coverage from New York; the cable
news channels will offer more comprehensive coverage.

It's been years since the Big Three networks have covered a
shuttle launch live, with perhaps the last time being the 1988
launch of Discovery, the first since the shuttle Challenger
exploded after liftoff, killing teacher Christa McAuliffe and
six other astronauts in 1986.

"There's almost a direct parallel to when Discovery finally
flew in 1988," said Miles O'Brien, a CNN space correspondent
who has been covering launches since the early 1990s. "Back
then, there was a tremendous interest in the return to flight."

That is borne out by the number of credentialed journalists
who are covering the launch from the Kennedy Space Center --
more than 2,600, according to a NASA spokeswoman. That includes
correspondents not only from the U.S. but also Japan and
Australia, the home countries of two of the seven crew members.

"It still means something to people," said Paul Slavin,
senior vp news at ABC News. But the networks are going to leave
the wall-to-wall coverage to the cable news channels, which
have ramped up coverage. MSNBC prepared a special that was
scheduled to air Sunday night before hurricane coverage bounced
it to tonight. CNN and Fox News also have announced extensive
plans, with Fox News Channel sending Shepard Smith to Florida
to anchor the channel's coverage Tuesday and Wednesday.

"The return to space is a very important national moment,"
said Mark Effron, vp daytime programing at MSNBC.

ABC's coverage will be anchored by Charlie Gibson in New
York and Bob Woodruff at Cape Kennedy along with other
reporters. The network's coverage is scheduled to be about a
half-hour total, if all goes well, starting a few minutes
before the 3:51 p.m. EDT scheduled launch time. NBC and CBS
will start around the same time, with Brian Williams anchoring
NBC and Bob Schieffer anchoring CBS' coverage. It wasn't clear
how long NBC planned to be on the air, but CBS would be on
about 15 minutes, said Marcy McGinnis, CBS News senior vp news.

"The shuttle is a perfect example of not taking advantage
of the viewers' patience," McGinnis said. "The viewers come to
watch a certain program, and they're fine and they're patient
as long as you don't take advantage of it."

The cablers, on the other hand, have planned a lot of
coverage. O'Brien, who has been CNN's space correspondent since
1998, said this launch is special for the shuttle program
beyond the obvious concerns about safety. The shuttle launches
are scheduled to end in 2010, which means that even if the
shuttles return to a regular launch schedule, there probably
are only a few dozen missions remaining at best.

"It's really the beginning of the end in that respect,"
O'Brien said. He thinks public interest will wane after the
first few successful missions.

O'Brien said that even though the astronauts exude a calm
veneer, there's no question that the shuttle mission is risky,
particularly re-entry on July 25. Damage to the heat shield
turned fatal for Columbia during re-entry.

"It's a dangerous time," O'Brien said. "I'll be holding my
breath, I'll tell you."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter