January 10, 2006

ABC makes news with live West Coast feed

By Paul Gough

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Last week, ABC News made television history when it began what will likely be the first regular, live broadcasts of the evening news to the West Coast.

For decades, most of the nightly evening newscasts offered to West Coast viewers have often been as much as three hours old. It's not true when there's breaking news, and the networks plan for that with anchors, reporters and producers standing by. But most of the time there isn't a need for an update, at least for breaking news.

Ever since the new "World News Tonight" was announced late last year, in the aftermath of the death of anchor Peter Jennings, ABC News has placed its stake in live news in the three and a half hours between the start of the East Coast newscast and the end of the last West Coast broadcast. And last Thursday, the first night of the live West Coast feeds, kept ABC News folks busy.

The 6:30 p.m. ET lead story -- emergency surgery for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- was replaced on the West Coast with the release of the 911 calls from the West Virginia mining disaster that also appeared on "Primetime" Thursday night. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's State of the State address, which hadn't happened at 6:30 p.m. ET, made it in the West Coast feed. And Bob Woodruff, who has been traveling in the Mideast since before New Year's, stayed up late to update his report on Sharon's condition.

"We're not always going to make the show as different and as fresh as we did last night," "World News Tonight" executive producer Jon Banner says. "But in so much as events warrant, that's the idea."

ABC's rivals scoff at what "World News Tonight" is trying to do as little more than a publicity stunt. More than 75% of the country is served by the initial two feeds of the broadcast; only about 14% of the country, all on the West Coast, will ever see the later editions. And the competition says there's nothing new about updating editions, and, in fact, even "World News Tonight" isn't guaranteed to be live with its two West Coast feeds. And they update at least once or twice a week; NBC's Brian Williams stayed late and updated Tuesday night, for instance, when the first miner was found dead around 9 p.m. ET.

"We're in the position to do (updates) when the news warrants," says Rome Hartman, the new executive producer of the "CBS Evening News." But he says changes aren't made just to make them.

"I would be stunned if day in and day out their West Coast 'World News' doesn't look like their East Coast 'World News,"' Hartman says. "So they read the copy again live."

An NBC spokeswoman was more blunt.

"ABC is simply doing what NBC always does -- and that is, being prepared to instantly break into 'Nightly News' with updates for our West Coast viewers. That includes keeping our control room hot and producers and correspondents on duty."

Even "World News Tonight" won't be live wall-to-wall most of the time. On the first night, Thursday, the first two blocks and the end were done twice live for the West Coast, under the assumption that it's easier to do the whole thing again than splice it. But the third block, an in-depth report on the credit crunch, was only done once.

"Why make work and tempt fate that a tape machine will freeze up," "World News Tonight" co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas explains.

"We're doing this because it's the right thing to do," Banner says. "We have ignored the audience in the Western United States for far too long."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter