A TV news operation is dependent on its signal. If, for whatever reason, the signal isn’t going out, then no amount of wishing and hoping is going to get it to the public. The nightmare scenario is losing your signal while there is an important breaking local news story in progress.
Sunday, a station in Houston dealt with exactly that. But thanks to some quick thinking, advances in technology, and help from their sister station, they were able to overcome the setback and provide critical information as historic flooding put lives at risk in every corner of their market. In doing so, they provided an amazing, real world case study that underlines the importance of having a robust social media presence and a staff that understands how to best use the tools available to them to reach their audience – whether they currently have a broadcast signal or not.
Holding the Line
KHOU-TV, the TEGNA-owned CBS affiliate in Houston, was prepared for flooding when Harvey came ashore as a Category 4 hurricane on Friday night. The station’s building, located along Allen Parkway and Buffalo Bayou, made it through Saturday with sandbags around its doors, but then the rain kept coming, unrelenting, for hours. By Sunday morning, the water had risen to the station’s doors and was seeping in. The flooding forced the crew at the station to move to the second floor of the building and begin broadcasting from a conference room. Within the hour, however, water was rushing through the front door of the building.
The decision was made to evacuate the facility around 10:30 a.m.
As the employees left the station, KHOU still had reporters out in the field reporting on location, trying to get their feeds back to a building that was now unoccupied. Most notably, reporter Brandi Smith and photographer Mario Sandoval stayed on the air for about a half hour after the evacuation, transmitting near Beltway 8 and Hardy Toll Road. From her location, Smith noticed a stranded 18-wheeler driver in floodwaters and flagged down sheriff’s deputies to help get the driver free. The moment went viral on social media and showed the sense of duty that journalists feel for the cities they report on and their inhabitants and the risks they will take to try to keep the public safe and informed.
David Schechter, an anchor/reporter at KHOU’s sister station in Dallas, WFAA-TV, was certainly impressed with the dedication the journalists showed. He was watching KHOU’s coverage from his home in Dallas on Sunday morning, where it was being broadcast through the stations digital 8.2 channel.
“I was watching that, and I saw their reporter, Brandi Smith, and she was going, and going, and going, and going. And I’m thinking, ‘this is weird,’” Schechter said. “They never switched away from her, so I thought something’s wrong. I called into [WFAA] and asked if they needed help. They said, ‘No, but it looks like KHOU has evacuated the building. We’ll let you know if we need anything from you.’”
Schechter kept watching as Smith and Sandoval kept broadcasting. They were the station’s only hope to stay on the air.
Then, their signal died.
‘The Worst Possible Thing That Can Happen’
KHOU was off the air. Schechter jumped in the shower, grabbed a tie, and headed to WFAA’s newsroom in downtown Dallas.
“I know that a TV station going down is the worst possible thing that can happen to you [when you’re trying to cover a natural disaster,]” Schechter said. “So, I feel like, [even] if that was a competitor, we would’ve helped them. It’s just a brotherhood or sisterhood. It’s a bond among those who cover the news. You don’t want that to happen to anybody. So, I just felt really compelled to help them. I think we all felt really compelled to help them. And I know they would’ve done the same thing for us in a heartbeat.”
Schechter had an idea. He hosts “Verify,” a franchise that TEGNA has experimented with as a show and reoccurring segment in its newscasts. For those pieces, he’s been encouraged to approach news differently, and that has led to the team working on the project to experiment on social media. In particular, Schechter said they have had an opportunity to learn to use a variety of tools like encoders and switcher systems to make streaming social broadcasts on Facebook Live look as fully featured as their television counterparts.
“From my experience with that, I just knew we could rescue them [from a broadcasting perspective] with Facebook Live,” Schechter said.
When he arrived in the newsroom at about 10:45 a.m., the WFAA managers were discussing what to do. They were trying to get all of KHOU’s reporters feeds to come in over the TVU grid system. Like KHOU’s employees, WFAA hadn’t entered the weekend thinking the Houston station would be taken off the air, and certainly hadn’t anticipated that they would be streaming live coverage on the station’s behalf on Sunday.
“There was no plan for that,” Schechter said. “We were not plan B, or C, or D for them.”
KHOU had given some of the WFAA staff access to their social media accounts prior to the weekend in case they needed some help posting. That ended up becoming a critical decision.
“I just said, ‘We need to get in front of a camera and be KHOU for KHOU. They can’t see their social media, they don’t have access to any of the tools that they need, so we can help them out,’” Schechter said. “I said, ‘Let’s take our TV station and pipe it through Facebook.’”
As KHOU’s staff scrambled to find a place to work – first at a Federal Reserve bank and then later in an empty studio at Houston Public Media – staff at WFAA prepared to take over the station’s coverage on their digital and social platforms. Schechter would anchor an impromptu newscast from WFAA’s newsroom that would be broadcast over Facebook Live on the Pages for both channels as well as streamed on KHOU’s website and YouTube page.
The Facebook Live stream was published at 11:23 a.m. on KHOU’s Facebook Page. It went on for the full, four-hour limit for Facebook Live streams, so they launched it again. All in all, Schechter said they were broadcasting on KHOU’s behalf for about seven hours.
“It was really cool as the day went on, because we kept it organizing around that piece,” he said. “We started with Facebook Live and it was just me and the meteorologist, which was more than Houston had at the time. And then we started to see the video coming in from the field. We had WFAA crews in the field that we could communicate with directly, and then after a while, we were communicating with the KHOU crews, too. So, we were taking live shots from the reporters in the field, and it just kept getting better and better and started taking shape.”
Working for All Alike in Houston
It was an odd sight for KHOU’s followers, who saw an anchor they did not know and WFAA graphics on the CBS affiliate’s website and social media. It was an odd feeling for Schechter, suddenly anchoring a newscast about a market where he does not regularly report.
“I think the key to that was just always telling people what was going on,” Schechter said. “I was just constantly reintroducing myself. ‘I’m David Schechter with WFAA, KHOU’s sister station. They had to evacuate the station, so there’s no one there to push the buttons that make a TV station work. While they’re getting that fixed, we’re filling in for them. This is a broadcast for the people of Houston, so even if we are in Dallas, we’re going to give you all the information that these great journalists in Houston are trained to give you.’ I kept coming back to that theme over and over again.”
The unstructured broadcast was actually a very good fit for the live streaming format. While it may not have looked like your typical TV newscast, it fit with the circumstances. The city needed to stay informed, come hell or high water. Thankfully, Dallas was mostly dry and the technology for streaming broadcasts had made it possible for KHOU’s sister station to lend a hand.
“It actually went very smoothly when we ended up having a producer in the booth and we had a director that was doing all of the switching. I think the difference of it was that it was very casual,” Schechter said. “It was OK for people to walk up to me in the newsroom during the broadcast and tell me what was going on. And I think that’s the kind of coverage I like and want to be involved in.”
Schechter said the seven hours flew by for him in the WFAA newsroom. Those hours likely felt like days for the KHOU staff scrambling for somewhere safe where they could rebuild as much of their operation as possible and get back on the air. But eventually, KHOU was able to get up and running again in the empty studio at Houston Public Media.
“They came back up on the air in Houston, which I’m sure was a moment to celebrate there,” Schechter said.
WFAA’s job was done. They had successfully bridged the gap in coverage caused by the evacuation remotely, with no plans to do so when the morning began.
“It started from the little seed of thinking digital and social first, and we were able to give them a hand until they could get back on the air,” Schechter said. “If you’ve had enough reps and rotation to practice with it and have confidence in it, [Facebook Live] is a valuable tool. […] It was the right time and we had the right tools and experience working with the technology and the audience was there.”
The audience was definitely there and appreciative of the efforts to keep them informed. The Share Rocket stats are a clear indication of that.
KHOU is usually the third-place station on social media in the Houston TV news market. On Sunday, Aug. 27, they were a solid second. Their market Share on social media increased +27.7% between Saturday and Sunday, to a 22.4 Share. Their total Audience on social media grew by nearly 54,000 followers in 24 hours. The station averaged 1,542 Engagements per post on Facebook. In total, the station generated more than 600,500 Engagements across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram on Sunday.
KHOU’s Facebook Live Becomes a Lifeline
The combined efforts of KHOU and WFAA staff provided desperately needed coverage in one of the country’s largest markets while fighting through challenges that are nearly unprecedented. Hurricane Harvey marked the first time a weather event of this magnitude had hit the United States since Facebook Live’s rise to prominence in broadcast journalism. WFAA and KHOU provided a perfect case study as to why it is such a powerful tool. Without it, one of the top stations in the market would’ve been left unable to serve the public during one of the most severe storms that the area has ever seen.
The ingenuity and effort of the staff of both stations was not for nothing. The first four-hour Facebook Live post from Schechter and WFAA has more than 857,000 views and was shared by more than 7,200 people. Many of those views and shares came during the storm, when many were desperate for any information about what was going on in their city. Schechter said he had heard so many people were watching the feed on KHOU.com that the servers that host the website strained to keep up.
Reaching and informing viewers at those critical moments in time is what journalism is about at its core. It’s about using your platform – whether that means on TV, on the internet, or on social – to keep your audience as informed and as safe as you can. Brandi Smith, the reporter who kept working even as her station was underwater, underscored that idea in her live shot.
“Nothing is more valuable than your life and the lives of your family members, those you love, your friends,” Smith said. “Sometimes we get flak because, yes, we are out in it. We are doing the things we tell you not to do. We do it so that we can show you how bad the conditions are so you do not attempt them.”
She’s received praise from across the industry for her professionalism in an impossible situation, as well as attention around the world for her potentially life-saving decision to flag down the sheriff’s deputies who rescued the truck driver. It may not have been the only life-saving decision made by a KHOU employee that day.
The Long Road Ahead
Those who toured the station on Wednesday estimated there had been five feet of water inside the building. The newsroom, control room, and news set look to be more or less a total loss. But thanks to the decision to evacuate, no one died there while trying to do their job.
Once the station’s staff found a space to work, they got right back to providing life-saving updates and bringing the heartbreaking stories of those who lost everything to the rest of the country through their sister stations. They’ve been doing it nonstop since the storm hit, now for days on end.
They’re sad for their city.
They don’t know where they will call home once things settle down, or even have an idea when that will be.
But still, they know they’ll get through it.
They survived the nightmare scenario that was the hurricane’s initial hit. They survived the nightmare scenario that was the flooding on Buffalo Bayou. And they survived the nightmare scenario that is losing your broadcast signal in the middle of all of it.
Wherever they end up, the journalists of KHOU will keep bringing their audience the news. They have the dedication, capability, and technology necessary to do it. And when even that is not enough, their friends (and sister stations) will be there to lend a helping hand.