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Covering The Pandemic, Local TV Adjusts

How do television stations handle the coronavirus in central Illinois? The answer is carefully. "We send reporters out when we have to but ask them to get interviews over digital platforms instead of in person--if at all possible," said Shaun Newell, news director at Peoria stations WMBD-TV/WYZZ-TV. "We can then shoot video of whatever we need from a distance when no one is in danger," he said. Newell said station personnel practice social distancing through wireless equipment and by using long paint poles and mike stands to keep their distance. WMBD/WYZZ General Manager Kevin Harlan said rigorous cleaning efforts are maintained at station offices at 3131 N. University St. While news and production personnel still check in, sales and promotion people are working from home, he said. Over at WEEK Television offices in East Peoria, home to WEEK-TV and HOI ABC, General Manager Mark DeSantis said deep cleaning and distancing are the orders of the day. "Currently only two managers are working fulltime in the station, the news director Lon Lucas and myself," he said. One of those spending more time working at home these days is Chuck Collins, WEEK's chief meteorologist. "Now I build weather graphics at home. At 3:30 p.m. I go into the station for the evening news shows. Then I go home after the 6 p.m. news and come back around 8:30 or 9 for the 10 p.m. news," said Collins. "I'm just not at the station as much. I'm still plugged in. I can go live from home if need be," he said, noting that weather associate Jesse Guinn does his forecasting segment for the noon news from home. With fewer people on hand, it's not business as usual, said DeSantis. "Some projects are taking longer to accomplish and a lot of the new ideas have been put on hold. All that said, we are still putting great, informative newscasts on across two primary affiliates, a total of nine hours of live news each day," he said. With more people home, more are tuning into those news programs, noted both GMs. DeSantis said national research he's seen has viewing of local evening newscasts up by as much as 70 percent. "People are now on a schedule to watch local, regional and national officials report on the numbers and status of the pandemic," he said. "This is like war coverage--however the difference between this 'war' and past wars is that the story is playing out right outside our own homes--and being felt by everybody," said DeSantis. Harlan agreed that viewing levels of local news shows have changed dramatically during the outbreak. "You've got more people who don't have to get up as early--because they're not going in to work. As a result we've seen viewing numbers down 25 percent between 5 and 7 a.m.," he said. "But, starting at 7 a.m., the numbers start going up and there's a big rise from 3 p.m. on," said Harlan. In an effort to balance demands for both news and entertainment, Harlan said the station has decided to cover all the coronavirus updates presented daily--mostly on WYZZ. "We'll run a crawl on WMBD about what what's going on at WYZZ. We're very open about what we're doing. We're trying to present the best of both worlds," he said. While viewing is up, advertising is down, however. "The hit to local advertising has been significant," said DeSantis, pointing to a rash of ad cancellations in April. "Olympics (postponed until 2021) is also a significant hit. NBC will be out big time," he said. Harlan said a lot of ads had also been cancelled on his stations. "There's no local auto (advertising) on the air, to speak of," he added, referring to area car dealers, a group that's traditionally one of the biggest TV advertisers. Both Harlan and DeSantis credited their respective staffs for doing jobs under trying circumstances. "Many of our news personnel are young, kids really, some freshly out of college and this is their first experience with something like this," said DeSantis. "This is the biggest story of the century and may be the biggest story they may ever cover--let's hope so. I have been amazed at how hard they are working," he said. Harlan pointed to the creativity exhibited by Kurt Pegler, 31's sports director, for handling a time when there are no games to report. "He's been airing sports vignettes sent in by local viewers," he said.

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