Issues, not images, drive Schiavo TV coverage

Published March 25, 2005

The Terri Schiavo saga, with its lack of dramatic video, wouldn't seem to lend itself to television. But TV news producers say that in a case this big, it has been issues, not images, driving viewer interest.

Video in the story has been limited to courtrooms, talking experts and images of the 41-year-old, brain-damaged Pinellas County woman taken years ago that are difficult to evaluate. Do they show her reacting to her mother? Or are her movements just reflexive? All that's clear is that the videos are familiar to millions of viewers.

But a wave of opinions from around the world and a string of developments from Washington, D.C., to Pinellas Park, have replaced the need for pictures, producers say. WFTS-Ch. 28 general manager Bill Carey and his assistant news director, David Ciliberti, said viewers have tuned in to hear the rapidly changing story as the governor, the president, Congress, the Legislature and activists joined the debate.

"I think it's the immediacy of life and death," that grabs viewers, Ciliberti said. "It's a visceral, emotional topic. It's almost like a soap opera. People have a very harsh stance either way."

Since Friday, local and national news outlets have anticipated, predicted, then reported a drumbeat of judicial rulings and appeals, not to mention a late-night congressional debate that played out on C-Span, live reports from President Bush's Texas ranch and live shots of closed courthouse doors in Atlanta and Clearwater. But it was the removal of the feeding tube that really intensified viewer interest and ratings, Carey said.

"The Schiavo story kicked into higher gear in the last week," he said. "It's always been a compelling story, but we have an absolute notion now . . . there's a finite moment here. It is an electronic media story because of the immediacy."

Local and national broadcasts repeatedly led their with video of protesters reacting as they learned of court rulings against them Thursday. The activists who came in to protest removing Schiavo's feeding tube waved a Bible or made harsh criticisms of the courts or demanded more from Gov. Jeb Bush.

At cable outlet Bay News 9, general manager Elliott Wiser said the flexibility of around-the-clock coverage allowed him to show more experts and explanatory pieces while using the channel's Internet site to further enhance coverage.

"Is it as visual as weather? No," Wiser said. "But there's a very high emotion to it. Good storytelling captures emotion."

That emotion found its way from a Pinellas Park hospice to the rest of the country. CNN commentator Lou Dobbs noted, "It has moved beyond an individual and family question."

Perhaps the clearest sign of the public interest is the volume of letters, calls and e-mails that streamed into media outlets, some of which were read on-air Thursday on WFLA-Ch. 8. Network television used pollsters to gauge opinion, only to have the results bashed on talk radio. And in the emerging arena of Internet Web logs, or blogs, the debate raged between those who wanted the feeding tube reinserted and those who didn't.

Television hosted the full range of opinionmakers: legal scholars, religious leaders from Pat Robertson to Al Sharpton, abortion foes using the Schiavo case to get out their message, and politicians.

And with so much air time devoted to the story, Harvard media analyst Alex Jones told USA Today that it appeared the media was providing fair opportunity to both sides.

The saga not only fed talk radio's appetite for controversy, but also the Los Angeles radio comedy show of Phil Hendrie, where a skit spoofing Schiavo's situation was yanked from the air in midstream Wednesday at WFLA-970 AM by the station manager.

Schiavo's plight also wound up leading TV gossip program Entertainment Tonight, which offered what it touted as an exclusive interview with sitcom star Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond), calling her the "first star to take a stance."

Heaton railed against taking Schiavo off a feeding tube and vowed to fast in her honor.