TV coverage can be a matter of timing

Peterson case points to differences among network news

— They're on the same television networks, hours apart. Yet the ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news programs take strikingly different approaches to covering the Laci Peterson case.

A regular morning news viewer is probably intimately acquainted with details about the pregnant Modesto, Calif., woman who disappeared last Christmas Eve, allegedly killed by her husband.

Someone who relies on the evening news, on the other hand, may not even recognize the names of Scott and Laci Peterson.

For the past six months, it has been the third-biggest news story on "Today" and its morning brethren. Only the Iraq war and its aftermath rated more attention than the 415 minutes -- nearly seven hours of talking -- that the three shows devoted to the case. That's more than the space shuttle Columbia disaster and homeland security.

Meanwhile, NBC's "Nightly News," ABC's "World News Tonight" and the "CBS Evening News" spent just 12 minutes on the story during the same period.

Sixty-three other stories received more attention in the evening, according to the Tyndall Report, which monitors TV news coverage and compiled the statistics.

"Is it an important story? I can't say," said Paul Slavin, senior vice president of ABC News. "But I can say it was a very, very interesting story."

The shows' formats, in part, dictate the contrary approaches. The evening news has 30 minutes to sum up the world, minus the commercials. NBC's "Today" is three hours, while ABC's "Good Morning America" and "The Early Show" on CBS are two hours.

With that extra time to fill, the morning shows mirror the cable news networks, which have also spent many hours on the story.

"It just has so much," said Tom Touchet, executive producer of "Today." "It's an unfathomable tragedy. She was the girl next door, she was full of hope and enthusiasm, she was thrilled to be pregnant and she goes missing on Christmas Eve. There's just so much our audience can relate to."

Top-rated "Today" has devoted 154 minutes to the case, more than any of its rivals. "Nightly News," also No. 1 in the ratings, gave the story a scant two minutes.

Touchet doesn't believe "Today" has overplayed the story. Its produces thought there were significant developments each time it was covered, he said.

Meanwhile, "Nightly News" executive producer Steve Capus said he was "entirely comfortable" with his decision to largely ignore the story, and wouldn't judge others. He said he was looking for stories that would hit the front page of newspapers.

"It's not a news judgment issue," Capus said. "I think it's a different audience."

Andrew Tyndall, a news consultant and president of ADT Research, said Capus had "played it just right. There's no national significance to this story. It's a local story."

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