At the end of the day we realized how truly cataclysmic this winter storm was. Walter Cronkite had not made it back to the sanctum sanctorum from which he does the CBS Evening News. The weather stranded him in Miami Beach, where he had spoken before the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Now if President Carter had really had his thinking cap on, he would have dispatched Air Force One to rescue Walter Cronkite and spare us the trauma of having the CBS Evening News barked at us by Dan Rather.
Unca Walter made it back to New York yesterday morning and the republic survived the shock of his absence. Besides, monster snowstorms are not so much network news events as they are local news events.In Washington, where the storm hit with the mercilessness of an IRS audit, the city's television stations did splendid jobs of covering what is for them an extremely difficult event to cover.
In addition, and probably not by intent, the stations demonstrated again how warming the cold medium of television can be when it provides a link to fellow creatures in distress or confinement. Radio can give essential information on bus schedules and canceled concerts, but it cannot furnish the comforting verification of a picture. Television, the kick-me medium, suddenly becomes as cozy as an old rocker.
The stations can't think about any of this, of course. Their news departments must solve a logistical dilemma: how to get manpower and machinery onto the streets to show how impossible it is to get manpower and machinery onto the streets.
Or, as plucky Channel 7 weatherwoman Lindy Spero put it yesterday, "I think it's pretty bad when the weather is so bad that the weather person can't get in to tell you how bad the weather is." Spero spent seven hours Monday shoveling her way to what turned out to be an impassible Rockville street. She never did make it in to her map and wand, and so Fred Weiss handled what was, despite the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, by all odds the day's big story.
Channel 4 news director David Nuell woke at 6:30 Monday morning and groaned at what he saw out his window. "I crawled out of bed and said, 'How are we ever going to cover this?'" said Nuell. But luckily for him, he'd been attending a convention in Chicago during the high point of that city's season-long blizzard and watched the TV coverage there. He had news personnel broadcast appeals for four-wheel vehicles early that morning and hired the drivers to pick up his news staff and bring them to the station.
Somewhere out of reach of even the jeeps, the station's huge and hugely popular weatherman, Willard Scott, of all people, found himself not only snowbound but laryngitic at his farm in Paris, Va., about 60 miles out of Washington.
Nuell and executive producer Jim Van Messel decided that local viewers need Willard the way national viewers need Cronkite, so they decided to put him on the air by telephone from his home. On the early evening newscast, Willard got carried away and didn't hear the frantic attempts by anchorman Jim Vance to tell him his time was up -- and obviously he couldn't see the usual studio "cut" cues.
So on the late news the station flashed "Goodnight, Willard" on the screen to tell him his time was up and to hang it up for the day.
"I realize Willard is not a meteorologist," said Nuell yesterday, "but there's something reassuring about him for viewers. Willard is certainly the most highly-thought-of local personality in Washington, so I thought there was validity in putting him on from home."
Indeed, Willard Scott sets the standard for combining the weather with hijinks and no other station has been able to top, or even come close to equaling, his act.
At Channel 9, only one member of the regular news staff, J.C. Hayward, was unable to make it to the office. Since reporter Susan King lives closest to the station, she was thst on the air in the morning, having hiked to dear old Broadcast House on foot, and anchored many of the "cut-ing" during the day. She did an excellent job of combining hard cold facts with a warming we're-all-in-this-together attitude.
Many news personalities schlepped onto the air in their cold-weather togs. including Channel 7's David Schoumacher, who arrived in a lumberjack shirt and boots and went right on the air to tell viewers how things were in Vienna, where he lives. But reporter Greg Risch, who was supposed to do the early morning local news cutaways in "Good Morning, America," had to walk in from Bethesda, so others filled in for him. "He finally toddled in about 10 a.m.," a station spokesman said.
Chanel 9 news director Milt Weiss didn't make it to his station either, so decisions were made with "a lot of conference calls," he said.
No matter now advanced TV newsgathering technology may get, titanic weather calamities will always pose a problem. Channel 4's Nuell said he usually has seven local and eight NBC network news remote crews at his disposal, but because of the storm -- and despite the fact that it was a terrific visual story -- he was reduced to two local and three network crews.
All three network affiliates were able to get -- at least late in the day -- spectacular helicopter shots of Washington that gave a perspective on the storm that only television could. At the same time, the stations showed enterprise and imagination in getting into the neighborhoods and hospitals for human interest anecdotes, usually about people banding together in the face of the great white foe.
These reports actually benefited from, rather than suffered from, the lack of slick packaging and post-production gimmickry that often make the local news seem wrapped in sticky polyethylene, like those poor entombed supermarket chickens. When Channel 4's Ken Reed got pelted with snowballs thrown by George Washington University students, live on the late news, there was a refreshing spontaneity to the blitz, even if it had been set up beforehand.
Channel 5, which does not have the budget or staff of the network-affiliated stations, provided serviceable though less imaginative coverage during the day. The station exhibited a misplaced sense of territorial imperative by affixing a copyright legend to its bulletins on snow removal and street plowing. Did they think someone else was going to plagiarize this perfunctorily investigative journalism?
Of course all three stations had their shares of technical snafus, sometimes because they were operating with skeletal technical staffs. Channel 4 interrupted the climax of a network game show for an alleged update with reporter Arch Campbell. He told viewers he had a District government official on the telephone and asked her to give the latest traffic information.
Campbell listened silently as the woman spoke for a minute or two, but what he didn't realize is that none of what she said was going over the air.Instead viewers just saw Campbell sitting at a desk and listening to a telephone.
"The bottom line on this," said Nuell, "is that there are two things you can communicate. Channel 9 had a great snowball fight on Connecticut Avenue which we didn't have, but we had a terrific piece from Sibley Hospital about volunteers there that was really beautiful.
"One thing we do provide is telling people what's going on out there. People rely on us not just for fun and games but for serious business like a piece we did on roof-leaking -- you wouldn't believe the calls we got on that one! In a situation like this," Nuell said, "the most important thing is to give people information that can be of some use."
After saying that, Nuell went home to bed because he'd been working at the station from late night Monday to noon yesterday.In addition to the nuts-and-bolts information that by and large was very satisfactorily provided, TV in the great storm also provided the surrogate window on the world outside that helps prevent or cure cabin fever and provides vicarious companionship that eases the discomfort of isolation in a crisis. The only problem is, from this constant reliance on TV you eventually develop TV fever. And not even Walter Cronkite himself has a cure for that.