With world leaders converging on their city at the end of the month, executives at the city’s television stations say they’re ready and will be focusing on how the event will affect local residents. From covering — and dealing with — traffic congestion to anticipated protests, the stations have booked hotel rooms, are ready to add airtime and overtime and are coordinating with other stations in their groups to be sure nothing is overlooked.
The journalists attending the G-20 summit of world leaders in Pittsburgh later this month will be able to focus their full attention on the event. But not the producers and reporters at the city’s TV stations. They’ll have to keep one eye on the Parkway.
As news comes out of the conference, the stations will report it along with everybody else, says Chris Pike, general manager of KDKA, the CBS O&O in town. “But as local media, we also have to focus on how this is affecting the local community.”
And that includes traffic on the Parkway, the busy highway that bisects the city east to west carrying thousands in and out of downtown, where most of the city’s day-to-day business is conducted and where the G-20 conference will take place.
“We have to cover it a bit differently than a news organization covering it on a national scale,” says Alex Bongiorno, news director for Hearst Television’s WTAE, the ABC affiliate. “We serve local viewers and they are far more interested in navigating this event.”
Pittsburgh, DMA 23, is a highly competitive news market, with all three network affiliates backed by groups with long news traditions. Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate WPGH carries a 10 p.m. newscast, but it’s produced by WPXI, Cox Television’s NBC affiliate.
Planners of the summit and city officials have told local media they anticipate about 3,000 delegates at the Sept. 24-25 conference. Add to that, local officials say, an equal number of media personnel and unknown thousands — possibly tens of thousands — of protesters, as has been typical at past conferences.
The flood of visitors and the attendant security precautions will likely leave numerous downtown businesses, buildings, garages, schools and roads closed.
To keep the locals abreast of what’s happening, the stations will use whatever air time is needed.
Although they will be reluctant to cut into evening programming for summit news early in the new fall season, the local broadcasters say, daytime cut-ins on protests — and especially traffic conditions — during commuting times are likely.
WPXI is adding a 4:30 a.m. newscast the week of Sept. 21 to report largely on traffic conditions, and it will add a 4 p.m. broadcast Sept. 24 and Sept. 25.
KDKA News Director Coleen Marren says her station should be able to cover the event and its local impact with its existing nine hours of daily news, but it will add more if necessary.
WTAE’s Bongiorno says her station was considering specials and other expanded newscasts. “But that’s in the works.”
Ray Carter, general manager of WPXI, agrees with other area news executives that Pittsburgh’s resurgence is more a story for the networks and viewers outside of the market. But, he says, WPXI will do stories on the event’s impact locally and on how the world will be seeing Pittsburgh. An hour-long preview on those themes will air Sept. 23.
In preparing and planning for the summit, the stations say they have been cooperating with other stations in their groups and with their networks.
Carter says WPXI began talking with NBC immediately after Pittsburgh was selected for the summit. “We’ve held meetings regarding security coordination, radio frequencies,” he says. “We’ve planned this thing out. We’ve looked at the worst possibilities and we’re prepared for them.”
While stations will feed materials to their networks, as always, there were no plans for joint programming, or for local reporters to participate in network shows. The networks, local executives says, will likely stick to their own on-air personnel.
KDKA, the market’s only O&O, will share satellite newsgathering trucks as well as footage with CBS, according to GM Pike.
Security is the wild card for local TV as well as local government and public safety officials. Summits like the G-20 have frequently drawn thousands of protesters, sometimes violent ones.
The 1999 World Trade Organization Conference in Seattle brought tens of thousands of protesters ranging from union members to anarchists and featured numerous confrontations with police. The city and local businesses lost millions of dollars in cleanup costs, police overtime and property damage.
Pittsburgh city and Allegheny County officials anticipate spending $16 million extra on security for the summit. Much of the expense will go to 3,000 extra officers who will help manage the anticipated protests.
“We’ve been in regular meetings with police departments — some off the record — regarding their expectations for the protests,” says KDKA’s Marren. “Internally, our No. 1 concern is safety for our staff.”
“We’ve followed a lot of organizations on the Internet,” she says. “Some out-of-town protesters are coming to town. They certainly have a right to do that; but we’ve got to make sure our teams are safe.”
The other station executives agree that the safety of their people is their prime concern. WPXI’s Carter says the station’s reporters have “received training from security specialists to avoid dangerous situations, and will have access to safety equipment like gas masks, helmets and bulletproof vests.”
WTAE’s Bongiorno says the myriad meetings on security, safety and other logistical issues have included not only local police, but also State Department and other federal officials. Much of the scheduling for G-20 has not yet been made public, largely for security reasons, a factor that complicates the stations’ planning.
Because Pittsburgh accepted the hosting chores only at the end of May, none of the stations budgeted for any additional expenses stemming from the summit. But the station executives are confident they can make do with existing resources, including equipment and staff from sister stations if necessary.
“We have the resources we need to appropriately cover whatever ultimately occurs during the summit,” says KDKA’s Marren.
WPXI’s Carter agrees. “This is not like the Olympics. We had only three or four months to prepare. We’ve got to make do with the budget we’ve got.”
It’s a matter of priorities, he says. “There’s money in the budget you might have spent on something else. We’ve got the money to cover this. It’s not easy to find, but we’ve got no choice.”
KDKA’s downtown location may prove a burden and a boon. Marren expects there may be some protests that come close to KDKA’s headquarters, at the city’s Gateway Center. Also, because the studio is so close to the convention center where the conference is taking place, she says, station personnel may have trouble getting in and out of the station.
“The station will be outside the narrowest security perimeter outlined by the Secret Service, but inside of a larger one,” she says. “It’s yet to be determined how challenging that access will be.”
Pike acknowledges that scheduling staff may be partly based on access to the station. The station may need to shuttle staff in and out of downtown, and he says he wouldn’t be surprised if some staffers camp out at the station.
On the outskirts of the city, WTAE and WPXI will not have the same access issues as KDKA, but Pike anticipates an all-nighter or two and has reserved a couple of hotel rooms. “We’ll try and keep overtime to a minimum, but certainly there’ll be overtime.”
It’s been a big news year in Pittsburgh.
In February, following weeks of playoffs, the city honored its home football team, the Steelers, after it became the only NFL team to win six Super Bowls. The city celebrated downtown.
In June, after months of the National Hockey League’s protracted playoffs, Pittsburgh’s Penguins won hockey’s Stanley Cup, cause for another downtown parade.
But in April, the city was stunned when three police officers were killed responding to a domestic disturbance. Local TV covered a lengthy and emotional memorial service.
“This is a good news market backed by three good companies,” Pike says. “This is clearly an all-hands-on-deck event. But all three stations are professional enough so that this will not be an overwhelming event for any of us.”
Dan Trigoboff is a member of the communications faculty at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C.