Foreign Disasters May Bust TV News Budgets

By Alex Weprin 

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The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford and Brent Lang report today on the financial cost of foreign news coverage. With so many events happening in so many places, TV news budgets may be getting stretched thin… and it is only late March.

The item has some hard numbers about how much it has cost TV news organizations to cover the various newsworthy situations:

To fly, house and feed each crew member and reporter costs roughly $35,000 for about two weeks, according to the cable news executive.

“Every network news president knows they’ve just got to do it. In the first few hours it’s, ‘Let’s go,’ then after a few days, it becomes, ‘Let’s figure out how to pay for it,'” the cable news executive told TheWrap.

And that is just for a typical foreign correspondent, if you fly in a star anchor, costs can rise even further.

So far, the situations in Japan and the Middle East appear to be multi-million dollar operations:

NBC spent $1.5 million on its first day covering the Japanese tsunami, according to one knowledgeable individual. That’s roughly the total amount it spent reporting on earthquake ravaged Haiti over a period of several months….

In the Middle East, networks are spending on the level of $2 million to cover each fresh political upheaval, according to an individual with knowledge of those budgets.

“The first day of a catastrophe the costs spike — you have to fly your crew and your anchors in, and broadcasting equipment. That’s a million-dollar hit right there,” Verdi told TheWrap.

It is possible that if the networks had larger bureaus in Japan or Egypt or wherever the news was happening, the costs could have been alleviated somewhat, but it would have required a larger investment up front to ensure those bureaus were fully staffed and operational.

Typically there is a foreign news reporting budget built into a network’s larger budget. There is also an (often significant) amount of “discretionary” funds, which is used to cover breaking news. Once the foreign and discretionary budgets run dry, TV news executives either have to find money from elsewhere in the budget, or ask the bosses in corporate for additional funds.

While TV news may not be the money-maker that the primetime entertainment programs are, it still has tremendous brand importance to the networks, so asking for some extra budget due to breaking news is not necessarily out of order.