The Media Prepares for Big Y2K/ Millennium Coverage

Boston Globe, Dec 29, 1999
By Don Aucoin and Mark Jurkowitz

It's the kind of story that comes around only once a millennium, and accordingly, some media outlets are gearing up to cover it wall-to-wall, or, more precisely, time zone-to-time zone.

Whether TV viewers want to watch festive celebrations on this momentous New Year's Eve or want to ponder What It All Means, chances are their wishes will be just a channel away from fulfillment.

Networks such as CNN, ABC, and PBS plan marathon broadcasts that will girdle the globe, from Times Square to Antarctica, from Sydney to Shanghai, from Jerusalem to Rio de Janeiro. For most TV news outlets, it's all hands on deck: When the clock strikes midnight, many star anchors and correspondents will be hoisting microphones rather than champagne glasses.

The Associated Press, which will follow the dawning of the millennium across the planet, plans on covering the event with roughly 1,000 staffers stationed in more than 100 countries.

But behind the scenes of the saturation coverage that begins Friday are logistical headaches, hard choices, and the possibility of technical glitches or major millennial news that could undo the best-laid plans.

At Newsweek magazine, where the millenium cover story could focus on anything from celebration to catastrophe, editor Mark Whitaker says, `I've been telling my staff for months that [the headline] could either be `Yikes!' or `Phew.`''

Logistically, ''This is everything you can imagine multiplied by 10,'' said Tom Yellin, executive producer of ABC's 24 hours of millennium coverage, which the network says will have resources equal to an Olympic broadcast. ''This is the most massive undertaking anyone has ever been foolish enough to try.''

Not quite: Even ABC's 24 hours is one short of the amount of airtime that PBS plans to devote to millennium events, and both pale next to the 100 hours of live coverage from around the world that CNN kicks off Friday.

''The millennium is a great moment in time to take stock of who we are and what we've done,'' explained CNN president Richard Kaplan. ''It's a real serious endeavor.''

Consequently, the most ambitious networks are trying to capture worldwide cultural diversity by being literally everywhere at once. In addition to news reports from correspondents, CNN's 100 hours will convene experts from around the world for discussions of everything from space travel to the genome project to global justice; for a segment on childhood, CNN will hook up the youngsters in a day care center in New York with those in a day care center in Africa. PBS will range from a sun ritual on Machu Picchu to an ice ballet on Tivoli Lake in Denmark to a New Orleans jazz parade designed to ''bury the millennium.'' ABC will carry dozens of musical performances, including Annie Lennox from the Millennium Dome in England, Jean-Michel Jarre from the Great Pyramids in Giza, and Neil Diamond from Colorado.

The networks have already faced an array of daunting challenges involving the booking of time on satellites; lining up guests to appear simultaneously from far-flung locations; arranging for local voice-overs to translate for non-English-speaking viewers in foreign countries; stationing camera crews, producers, and correspondents in distant locales; and preparing backup transmission facilities in case problems erupt.

''The logistics of this are overwhelming,'' said ABC's Yellin. ''How do you make sure, when you press the button to talk to the producer in Australia, that you don't end up talking to the guy in Las Vegas? What do you do when you think the satellite pictures coming in are from Bombay when what you're really seeing is Rio? And what do you do if the satellite goes down and you're caught staring at snow?''

He added: ''This is a moving target that's very hard to hit.''

While ABC and other networks have checked and rechecked their systems, they acknowledge there is no fail-safe mechanism to guard against glitches. ''The internal mechanism is we have our fingers crossed,'' joked Yellin.

So does Zvi Dor-Ner, a producer with WGBH-TV (Channel 2), who began working on the millennium project four years ago. He is coordinating PBS coverage, which will be coproduced by WGBH, the BBC, and a consortium of about 70 other broadcasting organizations around the world, including ABC.

Speaking from the BBC Television Center in London, the base of the consortium's operations, Dor-Ner said the coverage will be comprehensive but fast-moving. ''You might go from midnight in Sydney, Australia, to a sunrise in the Taj Mahal in India to early morning in Rio de Janeiro,'' he said. ''If you don't like something, all you have to do is wait a minute.''

If for any reason the BBC center is unable to broadcast, Dor-Ner said, the consortium will broadcast footage from a studio in Holland. ABC has a second studio prepared in New York, a third in Washington, and a fourth in Los Angeles in case of any problems with the main broadcast. CNN, which will broadcast from its Atlanta headquarters, has backup studios in that city as well as Washington and New York.

Locally, such stations as WBZ-TV (Channel 4) are also taking whatever precautions they can. News director Peter Brown said the station will set up a miniature studio at Channel 4's transmitter so it can broadcast directly from there, rather than the station, if any problems arise.

As for personnel, Brown spoke for many other stations and networks when he said: ''Everybody's working.'' Kaplan, of CNN, said the network will have up to 4,000 employees involved in millennium coverage, adding that he knows of only two employees in the entire news operation who have the night off.

While covering performances and interviewing deep thinkers, the networks also have to be prepared for any news that may break out. For instance, CNN's Kaplan noted that many people believe a messiah will arrive in the year 2000, so he has alerted the network's correspondents in Jerusalem and Bethlehem to be prepared for any activity among the believers.

Beyond mobilizing employees, the preparation stage has already taxed the ingenuity of the networks. For instance, the consortium supplying footage to PBS and ABC plans to broadcastNew Year's Eve ceremonies on the South Pole, but most satellites orbit the equator, placing them beyond the range of a signal from Antarctica. So the consortium arranged with NASA for time on a satellite that orbits the poles.

CNN's Kaplan said the network had to carefully schedule a joint appearance slated for Monday morning by former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev (from Paris) and former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres (from the Jordan River). The pair are scheduled to discuss water scarcity, and Peres wants to be at the shallowest point of the river to underscore the point. But CNN had to work around Gorbachev's limited availability in order to broadcast their appearance during daylight hours.

Few media outlets will be as taxed over the millennium weekend as the Associated Press, where deputy managing editor Tom Kent says, ''Rarely do we see a news story whose dimensions are as hard to predict.''

The international wire service plans on covering the midnight celebration, marking the new era at Millennium Island in the Republic of Kiribati and panning the globe to chronicle the sunrise scenes over the Pyramids and Great Wall of China. ''We'll have every nerve twitching on this one,'' says Kent.

The weekend event presents both opportunities and obstacles for many print outlets. The Wall Street Journal, which doesn't publish on Saturday, will include a special millennium section (currently slated for 58 pages) in its Friday paper. The project, focusing on ''What evolves? What endures?'' will examine the future of everything from the economy to politics, says Thomas Petzinger Jr., the Journal staffer who's been working on the package for the past six months.

Another national paper that doesn't publish on Saturday, USA Today, will release a millennium edition on Friday with a special foldout in each of its five sections that will examine highlights of the past 100 years. The press run for that paper will far exceed the usual 2.6 million copies.

With its weekend deadline, Newsweek will give its employees - with the exception of reporters and photographers - Friday off and then reconvene the entire staff the next day for a frantic race to the midnight deadline. Should computer or other problems force the shutdown of the magazine's New York headquarters, Whitaker says the operation would move to a contingency production ''war room'' in New Jersey. (Perhaps US News & World Report has the smartest strategy. The newsweekly has already published its last double issue of the year and is taking millennium week off.)

For all this preparation, the real test will come if big news - in the form of terrorism, computer shutdowns, or something unforeseen - breaks over the weekend. ''We're confident we can cover the story,'' says the AP's Kent. ''We're not confident of what the dimensions of the story will be.''

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