On the afternoon of March 11, CBS officials announced the immediate closing of the network’s Broadcast Center in New York after two employees were diagnosed with the coronavirus. The network’s flagship news program, “CBS Evening News,” was scheduled to air less than four hours later.
|Anchor Norah O’Donnell poses with the “CBS Evening News” crew after the show’s studio moved to Washington in December 2019. Most of the individuals shown are members of Washington, D.C., Local 1200, which moved the show’s production from New York to the nation’s capital in just four hours at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It had all the makings of a disaster for CBS, its storied news operation under threat from a COVID-19 outbreak just as ratings were spiking with more Americans tuning in for pandemic coverage.
Instead, the threat was avoided with nary a blip, thanks in part to the stellar work of IBEW members employed by the network from coast to coast. Those members helped keep the live broadcast on the air as well as news programs for WCBS, the network-owned affiliate in New York. And they did it all while keeping their own programs running at the same time.
“I’m really, really proud of what our members did,” Hollywood, Calif., Local 45 Business Manager Elaine Ocasio said. “It was all kind of a miracle.”
Added Washington, D.C., Local 1200 Business Manager Geoff Turner: “The pride I feel as someone whose job is to represent this group of people is overwhelming. It’s quite moving.”
When the decision came down to close the New York Broadcast Center, IBEW technicians sprang into action to entirely move the “Evening News” broadcast to the company’s studios in Washington. Host Norah O’Donnell had worked in a studio there since December 2019, but all the production – including New York Local 1212 technicians and sound operators – had remained in the Big Apple.
Such a transfer usually takes days, if not weeks, to accomplish. Local 1200 members in Washington had to pull it off in about 3 ½ hours.
“It was one of those professional days where your mind and body go into another dimension and you shift into another gear,” said Jeff Newman, a Local 1200 member and CBS audio technician who has worked in broadcasting for 40 years.
For instance, New York-based employees emailed Newman about 10 sponsorship and musical inserts that were scheduled to be used during that night’s broadcast. It takes him about 10 minutes to upload each one and ensure they are ready to air.
On a normal day, Newman might have several hours to get that work done. But on March 11, there was no time to spare. He had to make sure every segment was done correctly the first time.
He and the other Local 1200 members performed their work professionally and rapidly. That night’s broadcast was seen across the world, and viewers were never the wiser. Production has remained in Washington ever since.
“I wasn’t alone,” Newman said. “Everyone had to take care of their own thing. We were all like hamsters in our own cage.
“Looking back, there’s a real sense of pride that we pulled it off. We’re professionals. This what we’re supposed to do. Once I got done setting things up, it was actually fun and satisfying that we did it.”
Turner, a former CBS sound mixer who worked several years in the bureau, said Newman and his colleagues are being too modest.
“It’s a herculean lift not only to get signals pointed in the right direction in complex broadcast facilities but to recreate that comfort so the producers feel like they have everything they need and the anchors can see and hear everything correctly,” Turner said.
“I was so impressed by what our members were able to do, especially considering we’re in such a high-stakes period for the country and it’s a high-stakes show for the network.”
Across the country, Local 45 members faced a similar challenge.
In normal circumstances, WCBS usually stages its local newscasts from inside the Broadcast Center in New York. But with the facility shut down, CBS officials moved production for the WCBS shows to the Studio City facility in Los Angeles.
That’s where Local 45 members employed by Los Angeles’ KCAL-TV and KCBS-TV stepped up. Working with Local 1212 members based in New York, they took over production duties of the WCBS shows to ensure New Yorkers could watch their hometown station, which was a critical news source for a city at the epicenter of the North American COVID-19 outbreak.
|Hollywood Calif., Local 45 member Sandy Drake, an editor for Los Angeles television stations KCBS and KCAL. Drake worked with New York Local 1212 members to edit copy for New York television station WCBS when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the CBS Broadcast Center in the Big Apple.
WCBS reporters and anchors appeared on screen from their homes and other temporary facilities. The arrangement lasted about a week.
“As one of the managers stated, we were basically rewriting our disaster recovery procedures on the fly,” said Local 45 member Fernando Burruss, a technical operations supervisor at KCAL and KCBS. “We were coming up with new procedures and different ways of doing things at a moment’s notice. We had to do this right here, right now, and basically we were able with help from our brothers and sisters at WCBS to keep them on the air.”
Even while pitching in on the WCBS broadcasts, Local 45 members continued their normal duties at the Los Angeles television stations. Viewers in the nation’s two largest television markets didn’t notice a difference.
“I’ve been doing this for quite a few years, but I’ve never done this for another station remotely,” said Local 45 member Sandy Drake, an editor for KCBS and KCAL. “We were helping a newscast for a station across the country and I’m sure they were going through a lot. Just imagine having to go to work from a different location without your essential tools.”
Local 1212 Business Manager Ralph Avigliano noted the same members who assisted in the transfer of work to Washington and southern California are now working in COVID-19 hot spots in and around New York to ensure viewers continue to get the news.
“I’m just really proud of the technical ingenuity showed by Local 1212 members and that they pulled this off under extraordinary, adverse conditions,” Avigliano said. “The network would not be on the air without their expertise. They stepped up and laid it on the line and got the job done.”
Television news ratings saw a spike in viewership in March, when stay-at-home orders were issued and the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
|Washington Local 1200 member and CBS camera operator Stuart Ammerman on the job inside the White House briefing room in late April.
An average of 33.2 million people watched the evening news programs during the first week of the pandemic, according to the New York Times, a 42 percent increase over the same time the previous year.
Turner said Local 1200 members also have set up mini-studios in the homes of several CBS News on-air hosts and reporters.
Local 1200 also includes employees for PBS’ NewsHour; WUSA-TV, the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C.; and WBAL-TV and WMAR-TV, the NBC and ABC affiliates, respectively, in Baltimore.
At the local stations, camera operators working outside usually do not return to the studios. Instead of sharing the same vehicle with reporters, they now take separate vehicles to keep a safe distance.
“The car has become essentially the shelter for people who work on the outside,” Turner said. “They’re not authorized to work in the building except under special circumstances. The companies we work with have had to expand their minds a little bit about the hurdles our members are facing on a normal day.”
Facemasks have become the norm for all 1200 members. Those in studios are now working with the recommended six feet between colleagues.
Local 45 – which also represents technicians and camera personnel at several stations in the San Francisco Bay area and northern California – is dealing with many of the same issues.
“Most of our members are still working,” Ocasio said. “The challenge is getting them the safety equipment they need. The companies have tried to step up but we’ve had to purchase masks and send them to members to supplement the equipment our employers are providing.”
Stepping up for CBS is nothing new for members of the IBEW, which has had a relationship with CBS dating back to 1939, when it was a radio company. Leaders in CBS’ news division praised their work during the early days of the pandemic.
“There was no complaining, no moaning, nor groaning,” Ward Sloane, assistant chief of the Washington bureau, wrote in an email to staff the following day. “Just putting their heads down and moving on to the next thing. I, for one, am totally impressed by everyone’s professionalism and talents and skills and ability. Thank you.
“These are trying times. Your perseverance is amazing.”