NEW YORK – The unusual event of a hurricane aimed squarely at the nation's most populous city and media headquarters in New York put television networks on high alert Sunday.
TV news' top talent was working on an August weekend when it would normally be beach-bound and without raincoats and camera crews in tow. They displayed impressive firepower, if at times struggling to keep the day's top headline in perspective — Hurricane Irene did not hit New York with the force many feared — and creating some mixed messages with their very presence.
Scott Pelley of CBS, Diane Sawyer of ABC and Brian Williams of NBC all pulled hurricane duty. Pelley anchored a special morning newscast, and ABC had a four-hour "Good Morning America" edition with George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts, although each show was pre-empted in New York by local stations. Shepard Smith was at work for Fox News Channel, and the normally globe-trotting Anderson Cooper of CNN was deployed on a wind- and rain-swept Manhattan corner a few blocks from Union Square Park.
CNN's John King, whose main beat is politics, was pointing a shaky cellphone camera at surf of Long Beach, N.Y. Ali Velshi, usually more comfortable with Wall Street news, was reporting on river water spilling over a boardwalk onto his shoes.
The story was mostly in The Weather Channel's wheelhouse. The network had kept its eye on Irene since it was a few clouds in the tropics, and seen its ratings predictably rise with the gathering storm and dire forecasts of what the East Coast could face. From Sunday through Friday, The Weather Channel averaged 665,000 viewers, compared to 218,000 for the same period last year, the Nielsen Co. said.
"We're not trying to scare you," the network's Crystal Egger said on Friday night. "We just want you to be prepared."
The Weather Channel's anchors seemed visibly disappointed Sunday when Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm just hours before its direct hit on New York City. The network's familiar weather experts conveyed a voice of authority its rivals couldn't match with their detailed meteorological descriptions of events.
While they can occasionally get lost in scientific jargon, that is more informative to viewers than when NBC's Ron Allen reported from New Bedford, Mass., that "it's pretty bad, whatever meteorological label you want to put on it."
A sleep-deprived Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel noted before 8 a.m. that Irene, after striking southern states with greater ferocity, had taken on the characteristics of a strong Nor'easter when it hit New York. "Right now from my vantage point, we've got nothing but good news," said Cantore, who was stationed on the streets of New York.
An hour later Cantore was visibly more excited upon encountering visible evidence of storm surge flooding from the East and Hudson rivers spreading into Manhattan streets.
That illustrated the difficulties in taking measure of such a large and constantly evolving storm whose effects were very personal: It might not seem bad to a home that kept power and just experienced some rain, but would be a lot different for a neighbor whose tree fell on his garage. At one point CNN's Rob Marciano in Long Beach noted how the winds had shifted and the storm had become noticeably stronger. Then King, stationed in the same town, immediately followed with a report saying things had died down from what they'd been an hour earlier.
"While it doesn't seem like there was a lot of widespread damage, this was for a lot of people a monumental event," Al Roker said on MSNBC.
Ultimately, the true impact of Irene will be measured in the days ahead depending largely on flood damage and power outages.
The technical aspect of coverage most notable on Sunday was a few networks' on-air measurements of wind speeds and gusts from various cities, displayed graphically most effectively by CNN.
The trend now of networks reaching out to viewers to send in their own news pictures can be valuable, and Fox News Channel showed an arresting image of a completely empty Grand Central Station in New York. Yet Fox's admonition to "stay safe" yet send in pictures sounded hollow when it showed one photo of a man standing knee-deep in flood waters: Would people wade into danger simply to get their pictures on the news?.
The networks' habit of sending reporters into the teeth of the storm provided valuable visible evidence of the storm's power for viewers comfortable and dry in their own living rooms. The danger is that the presence of reporters attracts people who think it's safe to be outside. At least twice Sunday morning, wide camera shots caught people snapping cellphone pictures of reporters delivering their reports. Despite officials' constant request that people stay home during the storm, TV pictures showed folks going out for morning coffee, walking their dogs or, in one case, letting a child stand on a boardwalk bench next to a railing overlooking pounding surf.
While NBC's Pat Battle delivered one report from the New Jersey shoreline, her camera panned out to show some people walking on the beach. She scolded from afar that it was still clearly unsafe to do that.
Then MSNBC switched to Roker in Long Beach, wading in the surf.