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As Smoke Billowed, TV Rose to the Occasion

This is one of those times when calamity, like television, becomes one of society’s common denominators.

Tragedy, even when caused by humans, doesn’t discriminate. The $100,000 house and the $1-million house flame equally, as seen in this week’s dramatic TV pictures of orange horror and its ashen aftermath. The screen sizzles. The screen smokes.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jun. 30, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 30, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong station--In some editions of The Times on Friday, KNBC Channel 4 reporter David Garcia was erroneously identified in Howard Rosenberg’s column as working for another station.

It’s Thursday, shortly after 6 a.m., and KNBC Channel 4’s Doug Kriegel is in Santa Barbara, standing in front of smoldering rubble: “This used to be a four-bedroom home, 4,000 square feet . . . totally destroyed.”

And Channel 4’s David Garcia is speaking into a microphone from Glendale, where he lives: “On the one hand, you feel relieved it’s not your home, but. . . .”

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Never is TV more on the front lines of life, never closer to the heartbeats of the communities it serves, than during such disasters as the fires that have swept through areas of Southern California this week.

TV news is nothing if not a sort of theater of the immediate, mobilizing its unique resources, gathering its skills and using its remarkable technology either to bring us events as they happen or to update them to the instant. Newspaper people, whose own technology is a crawling tortoise by comparison, watch their electronic counterparts at times like this with envy and awe. Even before the ink on the newspaper headlines has dried, the stories under them have been advanced and sometimes outflanked by TV.

As smoke and TV choppers filled the skies, Los Angeles stations literally rose to this awful occasion at its onset Wednesday by punctuating their afternoon and evening newscasts with live reports from the field that immediately captured the raging, scorching destructiveness of the flames.

It was Channel 4 that did the real yeoman’s work, at one point covering the fires on the air while other stations fiddled: KNBC was the only station, other than KABC-TV, to preempt regular programming for fire coverage Wednesday, bumping “NBC Nightly News” and lucrative “Entertainment Tonight” and “Hard Copy” to accommodate a 90-minute extension of its own news block.

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Channel 7 preempted an “Eye on L.A.” show at 7 p.m., for half an hour of extra reporting on the fire. But it was KNBC that provided the most dazzling commitment to local coverage at a chaotic, confusing time when information was at a premium.

If there was a bone to pick with early coverage, it was a small one, but also an old one when it comes to disasters: Anchors and reporters repeatedly emphasized that homes and cars destroyed in the Santa Barbara and Glendale fires were “luxury” or “expensive,” and repeatedly cited the homes’ value.

The message conveyed was that monetary loss alone somehow elevated suffering in those areas above that of less-expensive Sleepy Hollow, a fire-ravaged community in Orange County. Tell that to Sleepy Hollow.

It was an eerie, disorienting--and somewhat guilty--experience watching these fires from the apparent safety of your own home. You were watching lives endangered and possibly ruined, while sitting comfortably in a chair, feeling insulated. Garcia was right, however. On the one hand, you were relieved, but. . . .

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In view of the heat wave’s role in all of this, meanwhile, a Channel 4 promotion for Thursday’s episode of “Donahue” provided a natural tie-in. The picture showed a tight shot of a woman’s rear in a micro bikini that was a only small step up from a G-string. Announcer: “Should we ban buns on the beach?”

From fires to fannies, television marches on.


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