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TV news bringing Russian invasion of Ukraine to living rooms and mobile devices

CNN's Clarissa Ward reporting live from a subway station in Kharkiv.
(CNN)
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CNN’s Clarissa Ward has been in war zones throughout her career as a foreign correspondent. But reporting from an underground subway platform in a large European city filled with Ukrainians seeking refuge from a possible air strike was a throwback to another era.

“It reminded me of World War II scenes we’ve been shown in the U.K. of people taking shelter in tube stations during the Blitz,” Ward said in an interview Thursday from Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine.

She presented an almost surreal scene of civilians sitting on cold concrete floors and in darkened subway cars, fearful of what was coming next during Russia’s unprovoked full-scale military invasion of their country.

“Because it was so familiar and it’s Europe, it was more striking,” said Ward, who has done tours throughout the Middle East. “Nobody believed this was going to happen, and there is profound shock. No one here has ever experienced anything like this.”

Ward’s report created what are likely to be among the lasting iconic images of the international crisis that will fill hours of TV news coverage in the coming weeks as Ukraine gets pounded by Russian forces.

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“We are on as high alert as a news organization can be,” said Janelle Rodriguez, editorial senior vice president for NBC News.

Broadcast networks broke into entertainment programming, turning to their news anchors, whose somber tones portended the historic nature of what viewers were about to see.

Russia pressed ahead with its assault on neighboring Ukraine on Thursday, with explosions resounding in cities across the country, airstrikes crippling its defenses and reports of troops crossing the border by land and sea.Map: Tracking the invasion of Ukraine | How to help: California organizations supporting Ukraine | What our foreign correspondents are seeing in Ukraine | Photos: Invasion of Ukraine begins

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“We may be witnessing now what is the beginning of the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II,” said “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell alongside video of Ukrainian cities where explosions were heard Wednesday night.

Networks had graphic packages ready to brand their coverage (“Ukraine Invasion” on MSNBC and “Russia Invades Ukraine” on CNN).

The 24-hour cable news networks — which used provocative opinion hosts to draw audiences in recent years — have leaned on their correspondents to provide real-time reporting on the assault.

While they don’t get the attention received by Fox News Channel’s stars who talk politics, Jennifer Griffin, the network’s senior national security correspondent, and veteran international reporters Steve Harrigan, Mike Tobin and Greg Palkot are a long-running team with experience in covering the region and logging significant airtime.

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“When we talk, I want people to listen,” Griffin said. “I don’t need to be on every hour. I don’t need to be on every day. All of this thread has been building for 20 years.”

Fox News’ conservative hosts and commentators have been harshly critical of President Joe Biden’s handling of the situation. But Griffin, who saw Russian President Vladimir Putin close-up when she was based in Moscow during the late 1990s, has not been afraid to contradict them when their views or theories conflict with her reporting and vast historical knowledge of the region.

Fox News Senior National Security Correspondent Jennifer Griffin.
(Fox News)

“I’ve always been a fact-based reporter,” said Griffin, who has been based at the Pentagon for 14 years. “That’s my job. That’s what they pay me to do. My goal every day is to figure out the truth and share it with our audience. The reason my audience trusts me is I don’t give my opinion.”

The unpredictability of the events led network news operations to keep their cameras fixed on locations throughout Ukraine. With the possibility of an attack at any time, several of them used “squeeze backs” during their commercial breaks to run scheduled spots in an adjacent box without interrupting the feed.

The process allows networks to keep their ad revenue without missing any action. However, if casualties lead to more gruesome images, advertisers are likely to pull their commercials.

Commercial “squeeze backs” can create some jarring moments for viewers. One video getting play on social media showed CNN shrinking its live shot of air raid sirens sounding in Kyiv to make room for a rowdy Applebee’s restaurant commercial with Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” as its soundtrack.

Former cable news host Keith Olbermann tweeted: “Death from the skies...sponsored by @applebees.”

Negative reaction to some of the juxtapositions led to CNN dropping the squeeze back ads later Thursday.

Empty seats, COVID protocols and a politically fraught host country in China put a damper on the events, but the streaming audience for the Games continues to grow.

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But the networks are putting some business considerations aside as they present the grim and dangerous story that is headed into uncharted territory.

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NBC News made its feed from cable news channel MSNBC available over the NBC News Now streaming channel. Consumers typically need a pay TV subscription to watch MSNBC online. CNN has dropped the pay wall in similar circumstances.

The approach also aimed at ensuring the safety of correspondents. Doing a single live report that airs across broadcast, cable and streaming limits their exposure in dangerous situations.

Cable networks are altering their schedules as well to deal with the crisis.

Clarissa Ward reporting live Thursday from a subway station turned bomb shelter in Kharkiv.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow is returning early from her monthlong hiatus to appear on the network’s prime-time coverage on Thursday. She is also scheduled to be back in the studio Monday and Tuesday to cover President Biden’s State of the Union address.

Fox News has preempted its late-night comedy talk show “Gutfeld!” to provide straight news coverage of the conflict with anchor Shannon Bream.

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