TV stations face criticism; flames threaten towers
Executives at several local television stations defended their coverage of the Station fire over the weekend after Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich and some viewers complained that the fire, despite evacuations and threats to homes, did not receive the continuous coverage given previous large blazes.
Antonovich on Monday accused television news stations of being negligent in failing to provide comprehensive fire coverage.
“There were a large number of evacuations taking place, people and animals were in danger, and people had no information of where to go,” Antonovich said in an interview. “I’m upset. The media let people down during a horrendous fire, one of the worst in the county’s history.”
But local news officials countered Monday that they gave appropriate coverage to what was then principally a brush fire. They noted that the fire had already been burning for a couple of days before the weekend and had not at that time posed a serious threat to a large number of residences.
Keith Esparros, assistant news director for KNBC-TV Channel 4, said that his station did cover the fire extensively in newscasts, updates and on the station’s website with several reporters and crews over the weekend. He called it an “odd fire” that started small and generally burned away from populated areas when it started midweek.
Esparros said the station usually provides wall-to-wall coverage in a disaster when there is “an imminent threat to life and property.”
He rejected assertions by some viewers that a diminished bottom line imposed by the recent economic downturn, which has hit local television stations particularly hard, influenced coverage.
“Economics had nothing to do with it,” he said. “There’s never even a discussion about that when there is a direct threat to life and property.”
Representatives at KTTV-TV Channel 11 said the station gave the fire comprehensive coverage over the weekend during its regular newscasts. On Monday, coverage began at 5 a.m. during KTTV’s regular news programs, with expanded coverage at noon and hourly updates starting at 1 p.m.
Television’s weekend coverage prompted steady tweeting, with many observing that stations gave more time to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s funeral and scheduled sporting events than to the fire.
Added Antonovich: “Now people know more about the coroner report on Michael Jackson or the problems with Britney Spears’ children than they knew about this fire.”
Meanwhile, local television and radio stations with broadcast towers atop Mt. Wilson scrambled to make contingency plans Monday to continue their broadcast signals in case their transmitters were damaged by the fire.
Executives at most stations, including KNBC-TV Channel 4, KTLA-TV Channel 5, KCBS-TV Channel 2, KCAL-TV Channel 9 and KTTV-TV Channel 11, said viewers who subscribe to cable or satellite would not lose their signals. However, about 14% of Los Angeles-area households that receive their TV signals through antenna or other non-cable and non-satellite methods might lose their television picture.
In that event, viewers of KCBS, KCAL and KTLA would be able to track coverage through the stations’ websites. KNBC and KTTV officials said backup transmitters, generators and antennas in remote locations were being constructed or were standing by in case their Mt. Wilson tower was damaged.