TV networks shifting toward hurricane

NEW YORK (AP) - August 31, 2008 Anchors Katie Couric, Charles Gibson, Brian Williams, Anderson Cooper and Shepard Smith were all going to the New Orleans area for the storm instead of being with Republicans in St. Paul, Minn.

Whether they will be heading north at all depends on the strength of the storm at Monday's expected landfall. President Bush and Vice President Cheney both canceled plans to be at the convention, where they were to be featured Monday, and the GOP was considering other changes to its program.

"We're going to go with the biggest story of the day tomorrow," said Jay Wallace, a news vice president at Fox News Channel, "and right now the biggest story of the day is the storm."

Along with Smith, Fox was sending Geraldo Rivera and at least a dozen crews to the Gulf. Fox had been anticipating a big week in St. Paul; its ratings topped every broadcast and cable network at the 2004 GOP convention.

It's unclear how viewers will respond this time if the storm eclipses the convention as a story.

Wolf Blitzer was anchoring CNN on Sunday from the nearly empty convention floor, yet he was talking mostly about the hurricane. Sunday on the cable networks would have otherwise been dominated by political stories - as it was the day before the Democratic convention last week in Denver - but much of the political talk this week concerned the storm's impact on Republicans.

"These two stories are obviously interwoven right now," said Sam Feist, CNN's political director.

Even in the few times politics came up, the cable news networks usually kept an angry orange satellite picture of Gustav in the corner. At one point when Karl Rove was discussing Republican vice presidential choice Sarah Palin on Fox News Channel, his picture was crowded into one-fourth of the screen.

A bright red hurricane insignia spun into the picture, complete with whooshing noise, when MSNBC moved between stories.

ABC's Gibson decided to anchor "World News" on Sunday from New Orleans. George Stephanopoulos was staying in St. Paul, but Chris Cuomo of "Good Morning America" will be in the Gulf Monday. Diane Sawyer, who went to the Democratic convention, will be in New York Monday and her future travel plans were uncertain.

CBS pulled two crews from the convention and sent them south. Harry Smith of "The Early Show" planned to join Couric and several correspondents in the Gulf region.

Williams was going to stop to interview GOP candidate John McCain before he arrives in New Orleans, said NBC News President Steve Capus. Anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw will anchor the network's GOP coverage.

Keith Olbermann was pulled from St. Paul to anchor MSNBC's storm coverage from New York, with his seat beside Chris Matthews filled by David Gregory. Capus said political considerations had nothing to do with that move; Olbermann has been sharply critical of the GOP.

With NBC Universal's purchase of The Weather Channel, all of The Weather Channel's meteorologists and correspondents dispatched to cover the storm will appear on NBC and MSNBC, Capus said.

Each of the broadcast networks had set aside one hour in prime-time Monday through Thursday for convention coverage. It's uncertain whether that hour will now be used to report on the hurricane or politics.

"The Republican National Committee has done a good job at being sensitive to not wanting to throw a party at a time the Gulf Coast is under siege," Capus said. "We're trying to approach the convention with the same degree of sensitivity."

Actions by the news organizations could have political repercussions. It could be the worst possible time for Republicans to share the spotlight, reminding viewers of Bush administration failures three years ago with Hurricane Katrina. Yet focusing on a politically unpopular president on the opening night of the convention could have been inconvenient for the Republicans, and now that issue has gone away.

News executives had more immediate concerns.

"My thumbs are numb from the Blackberry exchanges between yesterday and today in terms of shifting our coverage," Fox's Wallace said.

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