NEW YORK, N.Y. – So much for prime-time police procedurals. The marathon manhunt Friday in Boston was a real-life drama that kept the biggest television networks and their viewers on edge for much of the day, with a city’s safety hanging in the balance.
Viewers woke up to the news that one suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday had been killed overnight, with another still at large. ABC, CBS and NBC took the unusual step of casting aside regular programming to cover the story throughout the day, joined by the cable news networks.
The coverage mixed moments of real excitement with tedium as the search continued for 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who escaped during an overnight shootout with police that killed his older brother Tamerlan.
TV was a window to the world for residents of Boston and some surrounding areas, who were asked by authorities to stay in their homes as the search went on.
“It’s unbelievable, unprecedented to see a major metropolitan area essentially called to a halt,” Chris Jansing said on MSNBC.
Networks seemed to keep in mind Wednesday’s embarrassment, when some news organizations erroneously reported that a suspect in the bombing had been arrested. The scarcity of solid information did lead to moments of confusion, though. In midmorning, MSNBC was reporting that a second suspect was being hunted. CNN flashed on its screen that police were searching for a Honda that the suspect may be driving in Connecticut.
Other networks didn’t follow those reports and they were dropped as the search remained shrouded in mystery.
Pete Williams of NBC reported in midmorning that authorities believed they had the suspect cornered in a house and ABC’s Pierre Thomas similarly reported that police were moving in. But hours went by without any news.
Shortly after 8 a.m., Fox News Channel reported explosions and indicated the drama might be coming to a head. Two hours later, NBC’s Kerry Sanders was crouching on the ground talking on his cellphone, ordered down by police. It was pulse-quickening drama that led nowhere.
Both CNN and NBC told viewers that they were putting live pictures of the manhunt on a five-second delay to protect viewers in case the drama turned bloody.
Networks found friends and relatives of the suspects to talk about them, with Dzhokhar almost universally described as sharp and friendly. But in a news conference, an estranged uncle of the men, Ruslan Tsani, described his nephews as losers.
The suspects’ Chechen background led to talk about whether the marathon bombing had something to do with Chechnya’s longtime conflict with Russia. Others noted that Dzhokhar had been in the United States for many years, perhaps moving when he was only 9.
“The more we find out about him, the less we seem to know him,” CBS’ Bob Schieffer said.
As the day went on, networks found it harder to fill the time. Video of the overnight firefight was played over and over. NBC’s Brian Williams had a fascinating interview with a couple who lived overlooking the street where the gunplay took place, describing bullets that came into their home. But it turned long-winded.
Individual networks were able to show strengths during the coverage. ABC’s Bianna Golodryga used her fluency in Russian to conduct interviews with the suspects’ father. On CBS, John Miller and Bill Bratton displayed their police connections in a knowledgeable and low-key manner.
NBC’s star-crossed “Today” show had sent Matt Lauer to Texas on Friday to the scene of a fertilizer plant explosion, where he was largely forgotten. Earlier in the week, Savannah Guthrie’s interview with President Barack Obama was overlooked because it happened hours before the marathon bombings.
Lauer’s absence gave Guthrie her greatest visibility since she joined “Today” last summer, however, as she led NBC’s coverage.