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Think Locally, Broadcast Globally

In ancient times Ptolemy theorized that the moon, planets, sun and stars all revolved around the Earth. Later, Copernicus' handwritten book, the Little Commentary, purported that the Center of the Universe was near the Sun. Galileo was summoned to Rome as a heretic and confined for the rest of his life for publicly surmising that God Almighty hadn't designated Earth as the Center of the Universe. (The pope declared in 1992 that some mistakes were made in Galileo's trial for heresy, although he stopped short of dropping the charges. One wonders what, in another 350 years, Pope Oprah IV might have to say about the present-day Altar Boy Scandal.) But events of recent days indicate that the theory put forth in Ptolemy's Almagest is actually much closer to the truth that anyone might have guessed.

The actual truth is that (dramatic chord) the Center of the Universe is (drum roll) New York City. And, as viewers, we all know that if it happens to New Yorkers, it happens to us all. And so when those wayward country hicks in Ohio had the unmitigated gall to cause the electricity to stop flowing in Midtown Manhattan we all had to stop our lives and bear witness to the unfolding events.

News? Yes. Maybe even Hell, Yes! But continuing coverage? Let's examine the facts.

So, when Uncle Dan and his freshly Poligripped teeth broke into programming for one minute to inform us that it appeared he might not be able to take the Red Line to his Park Avenue penthouse after work because there was an apparent power outage in New York City, and, oh, it wasn't caused by terrorists, we all paused and thought, "Jesus, that's a lot of people without electricity!" Then we went on our merry little way surfing the net and watching Dr. Phil.

But then Uncle Dan came back on. It was worse than expected. Not only was Manhattan without power, but portions of Connecticut and the Hamptons were in the figurative "dark." This calls for Sustaining Coverage!

For the uninitiated, Sustaining Coverage is a condition whereby the Broadcast Networks declare special-report status and take over the television sets of viewers everywhere. It means that there will be no commercials, no breaks, and most of all, no entertainment (except for Dan's kicky aphorisms). Sustaining Coverage is what Broadcast Network anchors and news departments live for. It's where they earn their Emmys, Peabodys, astronomical raises, and bloated sense of self. Sustaining Coverage is a big deal.

That terrorists weren't involved wasn't good enough to allow Dan and his merry band to save face and exit Sustaining Coverage quickly. He had taken his place at the command post, his Rolodex of witticisms were at the ready, and he'd been catheterized to allow him to remain for as long as necessary. He had our attention and, by God, he was going to bask in the glow. If you ask him, his job during times like these is to reassure America that the almighty still favors us over the godless heathens in places like Liberia or Yemen or Philadelphia. And in this particular case, to reassure America that New York City is still alive and well... though its residents can't answer the phone or read their e-mail.

As time marched on Dan told us that some rural, backwards villages in America's hinterlands might -- might -- (Dan likes to emphasize subjective words) also be without power. Yeomen in Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit might have to milk their cows and shock their oats by the light of torches if power wasn't restored by the time night fell. It also seemed that power in the foreign nation of Canadia was lost, but the Eskimos there use battery-operated flashlights... and they have the midnight sun and whale blubber to keep them safe and warm. Besides, their Prime Minister, Peter Jennings, was vacationing near Ottawa (don't they pay him enough over at ABC?) and assured the citizens of Canadia that there was nothing to worry aboot.

No, the main story was that the commuters of New York were mightily inconvenienced. Some were trapped in elevators, others in subway cars. Some had to... walk!

Do I wish ill will on these folks? Nope. I've spent time in New York and I can imagine that it must have been a huge pain in the patoot to get from Point A to Point B. But the people of New York were no more or less inconvenienced than the people of Cleveland or Detroit (or Lansing or Oneida). Here's where my grapes get sour: had a major outage happened in Denver, or Austin or Minneapolis there would have been a story on the evening news... probably in the second segment. It might -- might -- have warranted a special report had it affected more than 5 million people. And they would have felt obligated to say Denver Colorado, Austin Texas, or Minneapolis Minnesota because cities without a huge body of water next to them need to be further identified as cities within the boundaries of the United States.

But Sustaining Coverage? Doubtful. Can you even imagine Dan and Tom/Brian and Peter/Ted sitting at their news desks looking concerned as we watch aerial shots of 50,000 people schlepping their briefcases and haversacks along Interstate 70 in St. Louis?

"We're entering hour number 2 of Sustaining Coverage of this CBS News Special Report of 'Blackout 2003, the Missouri Misery.' I'm Dan Rather and we have video now of a bus seemingly filled with what we think are people trying to get to the Mississippi River in an effort to abandon the town. You might say they are on a cruise ship to nowheresville and Isaac has run out of mixer. For those of you who are not aware, St. Louis a town located in Missouri approximately half-way between New York and Los Angeles. We also believe -- believe -- that St. Louis is the capital of Missouri, but we're waiting for confirmation from CBS' Ed Bradley on that. Meanwhile, in New York, the Dow Industrial Average is down two-and-a-third points on news of the power outage."

No way. Instead we wait for a breathless Byron Pitts to call from a pay phone.

BYRON: Dan, I'm at the corner of 34th and 5th (huff puff) near the hot dog stand with the really good (huff puff) mustard. I've just come from 33rd and 4th. I had to walk. (whew) The subways are out, the Walk/Don't Walk lights have failed, and people are worried about recharging their PDAs. I would describe the mood as "panicked, but businesslike." As you know, Dan, New York has weathered many other crises... the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, the 1968 Democratic Convention riots -- which technically took place in Chicago but were very New York-like in atmosphere -- and the Bicentennial. I'm sure New York will bounce back from this too. The only question that remains is how many people will die.

DAN: Byron! Before you leave us, please describe the mood there.

BYRON: Well, Dan, I'd have to describe it as not quite a panic, but not calm. Maybe I'd say "harried," or, as my producer just suggested, "frenetic." I heard someone else describe it as "alarmed." Some guy with a moustache used the word "consternated." I like that one, too. As you know each day millions of New Yorkers take the Holland Tunnel, not to mention the George Washington, Tappan Zee, Brooklyn and Queensboro bridges to leave the city and return to their sharecropping farms. If they weren't located in such remote areas of the city we'd get a camera crew over to one of those venues to shoot pictures of what I imagine must be a real bottleneck. One time, Dan, I actually had to go to New Jersey, so I know what it's like for rural folks to deal with this kind of crisis.

DAN: Thanks, Byron. That's Byron Pitts in the heart of Manhattan where millions of worried New Yorkers are milling about not panicking and where the mood could best be described as 'discombobulated.'

The fact that electricity was being restored to some areas within two hours was not enough to satiate the appetite of Uncle Dan. He cut in for updates during prime time. But ABC, in all of their wisdom, and apparently trying a new tack to gain viewers on a Thursday night, decided to chuck all of their programming plans for the night and do nothing but "Blackout 2003" coverage. Oddly, without electricity people have a hard time watching TV. The resulting audience was even smaller than their usual Thursday night line-up, which consisted of a dancing bear, a cooking show called Whoops, Where's the Cat? and a reality show based on Roseanne's hysterectomy.

They, like so many other Manhattan-based news organizations, failed to understand that the rest of us Americans really, deep down, didn't give that much of a shit about the power outage. Yes, we felt bad for people who were trapped and scared. Yes, we thought of ways we might be able to help. Yes, Packer fans worried that power wouldn't be restored in time for the pre-season game in Cleveland. But did we want to watch the power outage on TV? Would people in Seattle want to have KIRO cut in to the middle of Cupid to tell them about the Tornado Warning in Ada County, Oklahoma? I think not. The people who really cared about the blackout could tune in CNN or Fox News Channel and listen to their shrill anchors ask how long it would be until people in Syracuse understand the folly of living in the boondocks and move to the city where they belong.

Here's where the Broadcast Networks just don't get it. They think that in an environment that now includes CNN, MSNBC and Fox New Channel that things have changed. How wrong they are. Their job, on a day-in, day-out basis, is to gather the news, digest it, and provide viewers the facts about the events of the day. When the situation warrants it, they should provide special reports or coverage of events that truly affect virtually all citizens. It has nothing to do with getting a disc jockey from New Haven on the air and interviewing him about "potential fallout" from the blackout.

Speculation has taken over the chatfests passing themselves off as cable news channels. What the Broadcast Networks' news departments should be doing is concentrating on telling stories in a compelling manner. It's what they were doing in 1963, 1968, 1974, 1981, and on September 11, 2001. Doing it better is what the Broadcast Networks are all about. They are the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal of television and it's about damn time they understood that.

Instead, the next morning viewers were watching the morning circuses pull clowns out of the car and swing on the trapeze. Harry Smith, Hannah Storm and Rene Syler (I'm one of seven people who can list the hosts of CBS The Early Show and correctly spell their names) spent the morning discussing the "emotional toll" that the blackout took on people. Julie Chen, the 4th host, was in Los Angeles servicing Les as Big Brother hostess, so she was forced to put a West Coast perspective on "Blackout 2003."

Under circumstances like this all convention is thrown out the window. Matt, Harry and Charlie don't wear ties. The women are less made up and their hair is pulled back into utilitarian ponytails. They broadcast from "the plaza," or "the street," or their local affiliate station's news room. And everything else takes a back seat to the continuing crisis. They all seemed to return to one primary theme...how damn nice everyone was during the crisis. Apparently now that power has been restored it is expected that they will go back to mugging and mayhem.

"Here's a look at the weather, brought to you by Velveeta. Velveeta. Mmmm, cheese! Well, as we look at the map you can see flooding rains in Texas, the drought continues in the Pacific Northwest, Hurricane Jimmy is poised to strike the Florida Keys... but here at home we're looking at temps in the mid-80's. And Harry, Rene, Hannah and Julie, it'll be a muggy 84 degrees, so people will have to do their best to find some shade, since air conditioners don't operate without electricity. Looks like another tough day for New York, but we know that New York has suffered before, and New Yorkers will make it through this crisis, too. I harken back to the 1978 World Series where the Yankees were down 2 games to the Dodgers, then Graig Nettles turned into the human spiderweb and the Yanks came back to win the series in six games. Now, here's Rene with more schmucks."

The aphorism that all news is local holds true. Apparently New York is our hometown... we just didn't know it. At least they got some use out of those Y2K generators.

...And in Des Moines construction on I-235 has caused commuting delays of 30 minutes. Exclusive footage later tonight on your late local news.


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