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By ERIC DEGGANS
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001
Days into covering one of the biggest tragedies in U.S. history for some of the largest audiences they've seen in a while, area TV stations got handed something extra.
A major weather story.
Local news outlets Friday found themselves balancing continued coverage of Tuesday's terror attacks and a national day of mourning with reports of Tropical Storm Gabrielle hitting land near Venice.
Nationally, ABC, CBS and NBC announced plans to step back from wall-to-wall attack coverage today, barring major news developments. Industry analysts estimate the networks have lost from $40-million to $100-million per day by going commercial-free since Tuesday.
Area broadcasters estimate they have lost about $1-million per day by eliminating commercials in newscasts. Some went ad-free Tuesday and part of Wednesday. WFLA-Ch. 8 resumed airing commercials Thursday evening, and WTVT-Ch. 13 went commercial-free Friday for the day of mourning.
Area stations often eliminate commercials for wall-to-wall coverage during major weather emergencies, but many aired commercials in news shows about Gabrielle, wary of incurring further losses.
And though Time Warner-owned local cable channel Bay News 9 focused on weather coverage for much of Friday, telling viewers to watch corporate sister CNN for footage of a noontime memorial service, other area outlets took a break from weather reports to broadcast the ceremony.
"You've got to have a profound respect for what's happening nationally," WFLA news director Forrest Carr said. He said the station got huge ratings Tuesday by suspending local newscasts for NBC reports at 5 p.m. and 5:30. "Our philosophy has been to stay with the network, which goes against every instinct you have as a journalist."
As Gabrielle approached the Florida coast late Friday morning, area broadcasters focused on weather, breaking into national news coverage with updates and presenting split-screen graphics with weather information on one side and national coverage on the other. (WTVT and Bay News 9 presented mostly weather news.)
By 11 a.m., all area shops were covering Gabrielle, alternating shots of waterlogged, wind-swept reporters with forecasts and emergency information.
"Believe it or not, the coverage of the weather . . . gave us some relief from the emotional burden of what's happened (nationally)," said Phil Metlin, WTVT vice president of news.
Travel disruptions after Tuesday's attacks affected local TV journalists. WFLA-Ch. 8 anchor Bob Hite remained stranded in Colorado, where he owns a ranch. Bay News 9 news director Rod Fowler rode a Greyhound bus to St. Petersburg from Nashville, Tenn., where he was to attend a convention that was canceled.
WFTS anchor Linda Hurtado appeared on air Friday morning after driving rental cars to Tampa from Montreal, where her plane was diverted Tuesday as she returned from a European honeymoon.
Nationally, as the wall-to-wall coverage stretched on, so did the questionable calls. CBS aired graphic footage Friday afternoon of a woman being shot in the head during a story on Afghanistan's sometimes brutal culture (the footage was cut short in later airings).
Fox News retracted reports Thursday night that 10 police officers were calling rescuers via cell phones from beneath rubble at the World Trade Center. Executive producer Bill Shine said the story came from a rescue worker misled by a woman police later called "a lunatic" (Fox also mistakenly aired a number for a national mental health organization maintained by the Church of Scientology).
"When you have tragedies, these unfortunate things happen," said Shine, resisting the notion that Fox News has reported questionable information quicker than competing networks. "The audience is hungry for information . . . and there are lots of morons out there."