WVUE's New Orleans television studio is still under water and environmental teams have yet to wade in to determine if it is safe for humans. The station's signal, like 100 others along the Gulf Coast, was knocked out shortly after Katrina struck. A generator blew. The news team was shipped 144 miles east to Mobile, Ala., where they muster daily, two-hour Web news shows, the only evidence that WVUE ever was a full-power Fox affiliate and the city's second-rated station.
Yet Raymond Schonbak, senior vice president of Emmis Communications Corp., which owns WVUE, was relatively upbeat earlier this week. When inspectors rowed out to the transmission tower, they found it undamaged. His enterprising engineers tacked a transmitter to the side of a nearby tower to broadcast a low-power television signal, taking the webcast news show and beaming it across a few square miles. The station plans to air the Fox NFL games on Sunday to any New Orleanians who have a television and electricity.
And, most important, on Wednesday, the station got its first advertising client back.
"Would I like to be up and running with normal advertising? Yeah, but the world isn't like that," Schonbak said. But as an optimist, he looks to the Emmis station in Fort Myers, Fla., which was washed out by last year's Hurricane Charley and is now broadcasting to an advertising market growing 20 to 25 percent per month, owing to the influx of construction workers and other post-hurricane rebuilders.
Among the businesses hit hard by Katrina are media organizations along the Gulf Coast, which subsist on advertising. Businesses that have been closed, looted or destroyed have little to sell to a radically downsized consumer base that has little money to buy goods. Hence, there is almost no need for advertising.
Broadcasters expect that business continuity insurance will cover lost advertising revenue and network fees for the short term.
But even as television stations and newspapers struggle to get out improvised broadcasts and editions, they face a long-term problem: the possibility that many of the city's 470,000 residents will never return to New Orleans, meaning fewer television viewers and newspaper readers and lower advertising rates, which are proportionate to population.
Forty-four percent of evacuees questioned in the Houston Astrodome said they would not return to New Orleans, according to a survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.
WVUE is one of four major television stations in New Orleans knocked off the air by Katrina. According to Nielsen Media Research, the greater New Orleans area was the nation's 43rd-largest television market, smaller than Cincinnati but bigger than Las Vegas, with 672,150 homes with television.
Nielsen ratings are the first link in the chain that sets advertising rates. The company had set-top meters, which record viewing activity and report it to Nielsen, in about 400 New Orleans homes before Katrina. Currently, the company is receiving data from only 125 boxes, with the rest of the homes, and viewers, unaccounted for, said Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus.
"The television economy of the market has been severely disrupted," Loftus said. Nielsen teams must go door-to-door to metered homes to see if they exist anymore. Further, he said, Nielsen cannot determine how many meters should be installed in new homes until the city's population stabilizes, which could take months.
"If I'm a station, and I want to sell time, what am I selling on?" Loftus said.
Jeff West, general manager of WVUE, said he is charging advertisers based not on the city's former population but on the percentage of area homes that have electricity.
"We're rebuilding a station, a studio and a market, all at the same time," West said.
Last week, Hearst-Argyle Television Inc., which owns New Orleans NBC affiliate WDSU, withdrew its third-quarter guidance, saying the hurricane's impact on WDSU will reduce projected earnings. The larger Tribune Co., which owns New Orleans ABC affiliate WGNO and WB affiliate WNOL, will not feel a material impact on earnings because of New Orleans losses, said Gary Weitman, a Tribune spokesman.
Customers of Cable One Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of The Washington Post Co., lost service in the Mississippi cities of Gulfport and Biloxi, and in Natchez and Vidalia, La., north of New Orleans. The same was true for subscribers of Charter Communications and Cox Communications Inc., the major New Orleans providers.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which had a circulation of 270,000, published only on the Internet immediately after the storm. Its staff relocated to a makeshift newsroom at the journalism building at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and the paper printed for a time at a small community newspaper before shifting to the presses of the Mobile Register in Alabama. It's a much smaller edition than usual, grateful for the corporate support ads that recently began appearing. "It's the only revenue we've got," Peter Kovacs, Times-Picayune managing editor for news operations, told the Columbia Journalism Review.
Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss said New Orleans residents, and readers, will come back even though they have been saying otherwise.
"I'm sure people are speaking sincerely when they say that, but in the direct aftermath they are in shock," he said. "New Orleanians are tremendously resilient and awful hard to budge from this place. You can't transport this culture."
Staff writer Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.