Lessons From My Long Week With Sandy

I didn’t see much of the post-storm coverage on TV. My power went out Monday at around 6 p.m. just as the storm was starting to peak in my town of Chatham, N.J. I thought the broadcast coverage before and after the storm was great. But it could have been better. As I clicked through the affiliates when I had power, I found that the coverage had a certain sameness. My suggestion: when the next disaster threatens New York, the stations should coordinate and pool their coverage.

It’s Friday afternoon in Chatham, N.J., where I live and work. The town of 10,000 or so is about 20 miles due west of the Empire State Building — 45 minutes from Broadway if you manage to grab an express on the Midtown Direct of N.J. Transit.

Chatham suffered from the storm, mostly from trees that finally gave in to the incessant high winds Monday night and crashed into homes and cars and across roads, in many cases bringing down down electric, cable and telephone lines with them.

But tucked into the Watchung Mountains, Chatham’s troubles were minor compared to those of the coastal areas of New York, New York and Connecticut, where the storm surge destroyed some towns and decimated others. You have all seen the video and read the reports.

My power is still out, but I have found refuge in the home of a cross-town friends, which somehow managed to survive the storm with all of its services intact. They have found a corner of a spare bedroom today where I can work in comfort with WiFi access to the Internet.

In addition to joining my neighbors this week in clearing the two 30-foot pine trees that fell in my backyard, I have been monitoring the news media as best I can to see how they have been covering the storm and I’ve come up with a few thoughts and observations.

Last weekend, the New York TV stations did another extraordinary job tracking the storm as it made its dramatic left-hand turn and smashed into the Jersey shore. They relayed government warnings and advisories and added many of their own. It was impossible to be caught off-guard by this storm.


It is a black mark on the record of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski that he almost willfully refuses to see the full value of what TV stations do in emergencies. He will occasionally praise broadcasters for the service, but it’s all talk. He has done nothing to strengthen the medium by, say, relaxing ownership rules or by imposing a moratorium on new regulations.

In fact, he has weakened it by suggesting that it is obsolete and by failing to recognize that much of its current vitality comes from its over-the-air signals. He seems to regard broadcasting as a loosely guarded spectrum warehouse that can be periodically raided for spectrum for wireless carriers.

I didn’t see much of the post-storm coverage on TV. My power went out Monday at around 6 p.m. just as the storm was starting to peak in Chatham. On Tuesday morning, a neighbor who didn’t lose power lent me a 3.3 kW gasoline-powered generator.

With it cranking away, I hooked up my 36-inch TV to a panel antenna and pointed it east toward the Empire State Building. The only news station I could receive was WCBS, which gave me my first look at the devastation along the coasts.

Even though the WCBS signal was watchable, it wasn’t perfect. The picture and sound would sometime freeze up and stutter. It’s a shame that I was unable to lock on to WCBS and the other New York affiliates with the antenna I had at hand, which was a pretty good one.

I blame it on the 8-VSB transmission scheme of the ATSC standard. As I said at the Connecticut Broadcasters Association convention two weeks ago, if broadcasting fails badly in the next few years, a good part of the blame can be place on the wrong-headed decision a decade and a half ago to embrace 8-VSB. The good news is that the FCC’s incentive auction involves an opportunity to move to a new and improved transmission standard in the next three or four years. It’s imperative that the industry gets it right this time.

By chatting with a neighbor, I learned on Wednesday morning that I could restore my Verizon FiOS service by plugging the home interface box in my basement into the generator. I was soon back in business with the Internet and TV. But not for long. On Wednesday evening, the neighbor who lent me the generator lost power. He returned for the generator and I was once again cast into the dark. I couldn’t even get WCBS off air anymore.

I still had radio and some of the stations were simulcasting the audio of the TV stations. For instance, WABC could be heard on WEPN-FM (98.7 MHz). Of course, my No. 1 news station, noncommercial WNYC-FM, has been a rock throughout the week with its own local reporters and talk shows and a national perspective through its affiliation with NPR.

For a little relief, I sometimes tuned to all-sports WFAN, which offered a mix of sports and storm coverage. I agree with afternoon drive’s Mike Francesa that Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to go ahead with the New York City Marathon this Sunday and add to the city’s traffic burden is flat-out stupid.

I’ve heard and read a lot about how social media contributed a lot of the storm coverage, but frankly I don’t see how. It was tough enough to keep my HTC juiced to take care of business. And phone service was spotty in the first half of the week.

As noted above, I thought the broadcast coverage before and after the storm was great, if also underappreciated in some important Washington circles. It would have been nice is President Obama during his visit to New Jersey had given a shout out to the local media, particularly broadcasters. They, too, are critical first responders.

But it could have been better. As I clicked through the affiliates when I had power, I found that the coverage had a certain sameness — live reports from the field interspersed with live coverage of press conferences with government officials and the latest from the weather desk.

Each of the stations strategically placed several reporters along the coast. From what I could tell, none of the field reports distinguished itself. For the most part, they comprised descriptions of what the camera (and viewers) could see.

It would be better for all if, when the next disaster threatens New York, the stations coordinated and pooled their coverage. WABC could take Connecticut and Westchester. WNBC could focus on Long Island. WCBS could stay close to home, in Manhattan and boroughs across the East River, while the Fox and Tribune stations handle New Jersey and Staten Island.

This would eliminate all the redundancy, allow viewers to settle on the station that was covering their area and free reporters to be more aggressive in challenging the pronouncements of government officials and the utility executives. A  Pulitzer or Peabody awaits the reporter who explains what the electric companies do to restore power in the wake of these events and how much politics is involved.

My friend in the home in which I am sitting prefers Cablevision’s News12 because, I was told, “it is all about New Jersey.” Is that what broadcasters want — to chase viewers off to more focused cable channels like News12 and NY1? By the way, that latter channel and its coverage were the subject of a flattering story in The New York Times.

This suggestion comes from someone who has come to believe that all of these cost-cutting news sharing agreements among rival statements are a terrible idea. In normal times, stations could compete vigorously. In bad times, they should cooperate.

TV stations really are at their best in tight situations. It’s true: when the actual threat is low, they tend to overstate and exaggerate, desperate to ensnare a viewer or reader, but when the actual threat is great, they are careful to measure their words and tell it like it is.

In addition to the facts and figures and storm tracking graphics, TV stations also supply reassurance. The reporters in the field may be getting tossed about by the wind and rain, but the anchors keep their cool as they keep one eye on the big picture.

Their calm demeanor, the perfect hair and tailored suits say that everything is fundamentally OK, the Frankenstorm may be on the way, but Armageddon isn’t.

One last observation: Not all broadcasters survived the week. Some stations in New York I read were knocked off the air by flooding, But this I can say without qualification: Broadcasting is a hell a lot more reliable than the power companies.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (12)

Leave a Reply

Gregg Palermo says:

November 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm

No one will debate that ONE local signal should be ordained by the FCC to serve in emergencies. But five, or 12, or two dozen? It’s a waste of spectrum.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    November 2, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Considering you did not see the coverage, as typical, once again, you really have no idea what you are speaking about. There are only so many mobile crews that can only be in so many places. To get the full story and from different locations one needed all the stations.

    Ellen Samrock says:

    November 2, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    Yeah, unless that one station’s transmitter gets flooded or its antenna gets blown down and it gets knocked off the air. No, each community needs its television stations–all of them. You’re so quick to call for the sell off of UHF spectrum to the telcos while yammering on about the public owning the airwaves and reminding broadcasters of their obligations to the public. Let me tell you something. The telcos have no such public obligations to fulfill and once this latest bit of UHF spectrum is in their hands, it’s over. They own it and the public (including you) has no more say over how that spectrum is to be used or what service the telcos should be offering with it.

Bree Fowler & Ken Thomas says:

November 2, 2012 at 3:55 pm

As a new resident of SOPO in Manhattan (South of Power) I can only say that I learned a few valuable things as well. Over-the-air TV stations and radio stations are more important than ever when most Americans are cutting land lines in favor of cellphones. Mobile DTV services and devices tied to iPads and smart phones need to become readily available and if anyone had some smarts they would spend the next month selling them across the tri-state area. There are a few other benefits to pooled coverage: four TV station trucks on the same story are using four times the fuel and also causing congestion that can get in the way of first responders. It also keeps more reporters out of harms way. I also find it interesting that with the exception of CBS daytime coverage seems ready to wane. But now is when we hit a crucial point of this story: the gas crisis, the food shortages, the water shortages…the need for heat. THIS is when people need to be told what is going on so they can remain calm and collected.

Wagner Pereira says:

November 2, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Most likely the reason you could only receive WCBS is that all the signals on Empire State Building were down and moved to the backup sites – which serve the immediate vicinity probably better than ESB, but further out (such as your location) have worse reception.

James Diaz says:

November 2, 2012 at 4:20 pm

What is a waste of spectrum is A) the sanctioned warehousing, B) lack of receiver standards, and C) no impetus for greater transmission efficiency. The remaining broadcast spectrum is lousy for wireless broadband anyway because the antennas necessary for reception would be outsized. Funny how that never comes up.

Tanya Pavluchuk says:

November 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm

When the cellphone industry realizes that they too can benefit from greater efficiency the need for spectrum will be greatly diminished. LEAVE MY “FREE” SERVICES ALONE……..

michele descioli says:

November 2, 2012 at 5:21 pm

I’ve had the same thoughts about pooling while watching local coverage incessantly over the past few days. Had a combined effort allowed the stations to cast a wider net across the region, perhaps the devastation on Staten Island would literally have come into focus sooner.

m f says:

November 2, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Perhaps electrical noise from the generator caused reception to fail..?

Dave Chumley says:

November 3, 2012 at 9:14 am

“if broadcasting fails badly in the next few years, a good part of the blame can be place on the wrong-headed decision a decade and a half ago to embrace 8-VSB. The good news is that the FCC’s incentive auction involves an opportunity to move to a new and improved transmission standard in the next three or four years. It’s imperative that the industry gets it right this time.”
I agree.
ATSC-8VSB has INHERENT flaws that make it unsuitable for broadcasting. Same for M/H. The rest of the world gets it. It’s possible to get reception on HH devices, indoors, with COFDM-based DTV standard and the sooner the broadcasters and the FCC get it the better.
I live on a 4th floor, 13 miles from NYC We didn’t lose power and I was able to watch all the networks with an unsightly custom made (by me) indoor antenna. A new DTV standard would have allowed me and Harry to watch TV on an ipad with embedded antenna.

    Ellen Samrock says:

    November 4, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    8VSB was chosen for its ability to cover a similar area to analog but at much less power. My 2 Kw ERP digital signal covers the same area as my 45 Kw analog signal did. COFDM, for all its supposed advantages, is a power hog and not very efficient.

    Dave Chumley says:

    November 5, 2012 at 7:04 am

    Coverage is not service (eyeballs). Besides, even that “coverage” was achieved on paper only by assuming ideal receiver and no multipath. COFDM, used in most of the world isn’t “power hog” either.