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Stations Stayed Tuned to Jet’s Saga

Times Staff Writer

The city so known for televising painstakingly long police chases, and taking heat for airing their sometimes gruesome outcomes, took it to the skies Wednesday with moment-by-moment coverage of the JetBlue airliner that circled over the ocean for three hours.

In the end, the New York-bound flight landed perfectly at Los Angeles International Airport with its front wheels at a 90-degree angle. And the decision to break programming, whether it was a regular newscast or children’s shows, was a no-brainer, said several local news executives who relied on the predictions of experts that the plane would land without major incident.

That is often not the case with the more unpredictable police chases.

“The fact that it was live and unfolding -- I guess some people could make some similarities, but we certainly didn’t,” KABC-TV Channel 7 spokesman William Burton said. The station interrupted its first afternoon newscast to go live with the story from 4:15 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

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“I don’t even think they are comparable stories,” Burton said. “You have [145] people in an aircraft that’s disabled and circling and flying over Southern California, and no one was chasing them and they hadn’t done anything wrong. I think everyone is concerned about flying and safety.”

Also, Burton said, the fact that the story’s details -- whether the jet would dump fuel, how long it would circle and when it would land -- kept changing made it imperative for local television stations to stay on it.

In fact, such was the drama of the jet circling over the Pacific and beyond that even CNN, MSNBC and Fox News stopped their coverage of hurricanes Katrina and Rita to air the JetBlue story.

But in Los Angeles, where a Bronco chase on the San Diego Freeway in 1994 forever blurred the lines between news and entertainment, the judgment call could have had other implications.

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Who can forget the HMO protester who killed himself on a Los Angeles freeway in 1999 in front of all the local cameras? Or the recent car chase that ended with police shooting and killing a runaway felon in front of many local news cameras?

“When there’s a high probability of violence, we don’t cover something live,” said Robert Long, vice president and news director of KNBC-TV Channel 4. His station chose not to cover that car chase and shooting.

“I don’t put a car chase in the same category as the war in Iraq or 145 people on a plane.... The fact is that we had two pilots on the air with us [and] I wasn’t hearing from anyone that an explosion was likely. This did not look like a death ride to me.”

KCAL-TV Channel 9 was the first to go live with the story, shortly after 4 p.m. KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KNBC began their coverage shortly before 5 p.m. KTLA-TV Channel 5 waited for its children’s programs to end at 5.

Had something gone wrong as the plane landed, KTLA was prepared to turn away the cameras, news director Jeff Wald said.

“It is news as it’s happening,” Wald said. “Any time you do live coverage, you are always concerned and you always think about what eventualities might happen. But from all the discussions we had with our experts, the feeling was that it was going to be OK.”

Long said KNBC would have stuck with the story no matter how it ended.

“We show violence every day,” he said. “There’s a place called Iraq where people are being blown up on a daily basis. Should we not cover that? Once you start covering something live, I’m not a great believer in cutting away.”

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