The world of 24/7 cable TV news was made for stories like the start of the rescue of 33 Chilean mine workers Monday night and Tuesday morning.
For all the partisan excess that has overtaken the genre in recent years, a story like the one taking place under all those TV lights in the middle of a cold, dark desert served as a reminder of what made cable news once seem so promising in the 1980s and '90s -- the ability to take viewers to powerful events around the globe and allow us to become totally involved in them through continuous coverage.
Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all followed the story carefully during prime time Monday. Following John King's 7 p.m. show, CNN brought Anderson Cooper on early to anchor its coverage. Pre-empting "Parker Spitzer" was not a hard call, given the week-old show's wretched ratings and withering reveiws.
CNN's eagerness to get a big news story and hold an audience was a little too obvious in the early going. A headline at the bottom of the screen near the 8 o'clock hour said, "First miner to surface shortly." Not exactly. That wouldn't happen for almost four hours.
At 9:30 p.m., CNN had revised that headline to read: "First miner to surface tonight."
Florencio Avalos, 31, made it out near midnight in the slender, rocket-like tube that is carrying the miners one at a time from the depths of the mountain in which they have been buried for 69 days.
Fox News and MSNBC, with their higher-rated prime-time programs, used TV as we know it today most effectively. During Bill O'Reilly's show, the highest rated program in cable news, viewers were generally offered a split screen, with the scene in Chile on one-third of the screen and O'Reilly and his guests on the other two-thirds. Viewers were also given frequent full-screen updates from the mine as events warranted. That seemed the best way to go as minor delays with the capsule and further testing by mine officials pushed the actual rescue of the first miner out of prime time in the U.S.
For all the drama and mythic resonance of a narrative that featured man and technology stealing 33 lives back from nature, one of the moments that most impressed me found NBC reporter Kerry Sanders interviewing one of the wives of a miner. The interview aired on MSNBC.
Sanders interviewed the woman gently, sensitively and in Spanish offering a simultaneous translation of his questions and her answers for the American audience. It was nice to see a reporter from an American network on a big international story showing respect for another culture and the lives and emotions in jeopardy -- even as he provided first-rate information for his audience in a highly competitive situation. Kudos to Sanders who served as a reminder of the best of broadcast journalism with that interview.
All three cable channels were in place with reporters and cameras, and covered the story well. But while Fox News and MSNBC also gave viewers some part of the cable channels' most popular shows and in so doing also covered other major stories like the court ruling on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," CNN was mostly one-note through much of the evening when little was actually happening at the mine in Chile. This is the downside of saturation coverage.