NEW YORK – Television networks began juggling two major stories on Monday, still wondering whether Tropical Storm Isaac will cause them to divert a large amount of attention from the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Anderson Cooper of CNN and Shepard Smith of Fox News Channel were shifted by their networks from Tampa to New Orleans, where the storm appeared headed. It's an odd rerun for both of them: four years ago they left a GOP convention to head to the gulf region ahead of Hurricane Gustav. MSNBC was sending Tamron Hall and Lester Holt to New Orleans in advance of Isaac, and Soledad O'Brien was joining Cooper for CNN.
The major broadcast networks haven't shifted resources yet. Even before the Republicans chose to cancel the first night of the convention on Monday and compress the action into three days, ABC, CBS and NBC had not planned on broadcasting from Tampa on Monday night. Each has scheduled an hour of convention coverage over the next three nights.
"We continue to watch the storm closely and we will have correspondent coverage throughout the region," said Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, vice president of CBS News. "We will reposition some of our resources as necessary."
Brian Williams of NBC News has taken an intense interest in the New Orleans area since Hurricane Katrina seven years ago, but there are no immediate plans for him to switch cities. NBC's coverage is augmented through its partnership with The Weather Channel, also owned by the Comcast Corp.
The cancellation of Monday's convention activities due to Isaac forced schedule changes upon television networks. Instead of three hours on politics, PBS shifted to entertainment programming. CNN reran a documentary on Republican Mitt Romney that first aired Sunday night. Fox News Channel and MSNBC played to their bases with their typical opinion programs.
Throughout Monday, CNN mixed coverage of the storm with political stories from Tampa. Even when its correspondents were talking politics, the lower portion of the network's screen flashed updates on the path and wind speed of Isaac. The network has plenty of experience following multiple stories, said Sam Feist, CNN political director.
"This is CNN," Feist said. "We can walk and chew gum at the same time."
The uncertainty about the storm's path and strength made for uncertainty among Republicans, too.
"This is a difficult set of circumstances for the Republicans," said Fox's Smith, "because as this storm comes through it's going to be fighting for TV time, and newspaper headline time and water cooler talk time. The Republicans had hoped they would be able to have all of the attention of themselves for the next few days and it would appear that Isaac has thrown a wrench in that."
Networks strive, as best they can, to be fair to both parties in terms of television time around the conventions. Even with the storm, Feist said he expects the Republicans to get as much or more coverage than the Democrats, primarily because of the GOP's original plan to have a four-night convention.
Television didn't even need the convention to start to produce some fireworks on Monday. MSNBC's "Morning Joe" featured a bitter confrontation with MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews attacking Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Romney campaign tactics, leaving show hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski plainly uncomfortable.