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Networks Turned to Affiliates After Quake

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the earthquake struck San Francisco, the major TV networks scrambled to air dramatic video of the disaster, relying to an unusual degree on the reporting of local stations to get out the first pictures from an area that lost phone lines, power and light.

At times during the networks’ many hours of coverage, they “cut in” to their San Francisco affiliates’ local newscasts, giving national viewers an unedited look at the San Francisco news.

“It was unusual to cut in to the local newscasts as much as we did,” Ted Koppel, who anchored nearly five hours of coverage throughout the night for ABC, said Wednesday. “We were flying on their power to a large extent.”

Power literally was the problem for NBC. While ABC, CBS and CNN were able to begin lengthy coverage of the earthquake shortly after the quake hit at 5:04 p.m. PDT, NBC lagged behind because the network’s affiliate, KRON, had lost power on its generator and didn’t have a backup at hand.

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After announcing the quake at 5:31 p.m., NBC went on the air at 5:58 p.m. with the first of a series of reports anchored by Mary Alice Williams. The updates, which ran several minutes each, continued until 6:43 p.m., when Tom Brokaw began continuous coverage.

“In the beginning reports, we stayed on as long as we could with the information and material we could get,” said Don Browne, executive news director of NBC News. “Your affiliate is your link, and we literally couldn’t reach them at first because of their technical problems.”

Once KRON was able to get video and reporting out to NBC, said Browne, “NBC was able to make a strong stretch run.”

Ironically, Cable News Network was able to get footage from KRON before NBC did. CNN was able to pick up the local broadcast of KRON, a CNN affiliate, and send it via satellite to CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta. CNN broadcast video from KRON at 6:42 p.m. PDT

NBC confirmed Wednesday that CNN had been able to get on the air with the footage sooner.

“CNN did have KRON’s material sooner because KRON was beaming up on the satellite,” said NBC News spokesman Catherine McQuay. “NBC got the signal through an uplink through KCRA, the NBC affiliate in Sacramento.”

ABC--which was beginning its broadcast of the World Series game from San Francisco when the earthquake struck--had the competitive advantage in its coverage. Koppel, who went on the air from Washington D.C. at 5:23 p.m. following a brief announcement at 5:10 p.m., interviewed ABC sportcaster Al Michaels live from Candlestick Park and was able to show aerial shots from the Goodyear blimp, in addition to footage throughout the night from KGO-TV, the network’s San Francisco affiliate.

At CBS, Dan Rather went on the air with a bulletin that the earthquake had hit at 5:21 p.m. With pictures from CBS affiliate KPIX, the network began continuous coverage at 5:55 p.m.

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