ABC News Leans on BBC for Iraq War Coverage

ABC News and the BBC will expand their news partnership in Iraq, with ABC reducing its full-time presence there while relying on the BBC for day-to-day reports from inside the country.

ABC will continue to have a Baghdad bureau, although it will have fewer employees than there had been since the war began in 2003 and no full-time correspondent assigned there. ABC News will continue have correspondents covering the war in Iraq, for larger stories like the upcoming elections as well as when the situation warrants.

“We will have a presence but significantly less than there was before,” an ABC News executive who declined to be named told The Hollywood Reporter. “This is more of a reallocation of resources so we’re not spending money for a substantial presence on the ground waiting for something to happen.”

Now, the BBC’s correspondents will cover any of the day-to-day stories that the network will carry.

ABC News president David Westin announced the change Wednesday morning in Baghdad in an email to employees obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. He wrote in the email that Iraq would continue to be an important story for ABC News and “we will devote all the resources necessary to do the story justice.” ABC hopes that the expanded partnership will free ABC News’ resources from daily stories.

The Baghdad bureaus have cost ABC and the other broadcast networks and cable news channels phenomenal amounts of money to keep open since the war began in 2003, millions of dollars per year with seemingly no end in sight. That includes not only keeping at least one correspondent and producing team there for much of that time per network but also the support staff and the heavy security that is required for operating in-country.

As the war dragged on, the broadcast networks had occasionally explored the sharing of resources and possibly content in Iraq. Throughout the war, it’s been an often deadly place for journalists with among others the deaths of two CBS News employees in an IED explosion Memorial Day 2006 and the severe IED injury of CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier and a January 2006 IED explosion that severely wounded ABC News’s Bob Woodruff. The networks have always shared intelligence and security matters in regular conference calls.

But efforts to extend that to content sharing, perhaps having one correspondent for the networks in Baghdad at a time working in a pool arrangement, never came to fruition. CBS News president Sean McManus said that it wasn’t “an arrangement that made sense for CBS News.” The network also doesn’t have a full-time correspondent in Iraq, although Elizabeth Palmer spent 10 days there before Christmas filing reports. McManus said that having no full-time correspondent there saves a little bit of money but not as much; there is still a CBS News bureau there with employees.

“It wasn’t so much a question of saving some money but being more intelligent in how we use our resources,” McManus said.

ABC’s decision to share content with the BBC comes at a time when the broadcast networks are finding their budgets slimming and the need to cover stories like the war in Afghanistan increasing. ABC hasn’t shied away from covering international stories, with a creative use of resources in one-person, high-tech bureaus in India, Africa and elsewhere. But the Iraq war has, even with 130,000 U.S. troops remaining there, fallen mostly off the front pages and top of the evening newscasts. Troop deaths are down; so is the amount of time that the networks have devoted to the story in the election year just past.

The evening newscasts only gave 434 minutes of airtime to the war, down sharply from the 1,888 in 2007 when it was the top story of the year, according to the Tyndall Report. The networks gave 2,009 minutes of coverage in 2006. But the presidential election and the recession were by far the biggest stories of the year, pushing Iraq far down the list of news priorities. By contrast, there were 745 minutes of stories on the Obama campaign and 531 minutes of stories on the McCain campaign, Tyndall said.

“For a good long time, the nature of the [Iraq] story has been day of air stories,” the ABC executive said. “There’s not as much day-of-air reporting that needs to be done. There are major stories that need to be reported out, and we will continue to do that.”

That includes ABC’s award-winning “Iraq: Where We Stand” series that began soon after the war started and is a big annual effort between ABC, the BBC and other print and foreign network partners. “Where Things Stand” will continue again this year.

“We’re committed to that series,” the exec said.

It also includes embedding with U.S. troops, as correspondent Martha Raddatz has done continually, and other longer-term stories as warrants.

ABC News has had a long-term content sharing plan with the BBC, the only U.S. network to do so. The partnership has grown from 1994, when it began, to include having BBC correspondents file stories for the network. The partnership goes both ways, with the BBC providing reports from the Congo last year while ABC helped the BBC with coverage of the presidential election.

The deal includes some financial support for the BBC’s coverage by ABC, but it wasn’t clear how much. The BBC announced to its employees the change Wednesday afternoon.