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Cable news networks riveted by 'balloon boy' [updated]

October 15, 2009 |  2:36 pm

Forget health care or Afghanistan. For about two hours today, the cable news networks devoted nonstop coverage to tracking the progress of a silver balloon floating across the fields of northern Colorado. Initial reports that a 6-year-old boy was inside the balloon proved unfounded once it landed, and now the search is on for the child, whose parents are amateur storm chasers and had the device in their back yard.

The story was irresistable to the news networks, which quickly tracked down balloon experts to opine on the speed of the craft and how long it could remain airborne. Inside CNN's New York headquarters, staffers stood up at their desks, watching the footage incredulously.

“If there’s ever a book about what I did for the first 20 years of my working life, Oct. 15 will have at least a page," said Fox News anchor Shepard Smith on the air, adding: "Of nothing else, we’ve had a fascinating hour and a half with no commercials of watching a beautiful day in Colorado.”

As the orb floated through the sky, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC delayed their broadcast of the footage for at least several seconds in case the contraption crashed to the ground. Out of caution, CNN upped its delay to 10 seconds, and Fox cut away to Smith when the balloon came down. (Still, critics questioned their decision to show the footage, arguing that they may have even inadvertently broadcast an image of the boy's death if he indeed fell out of the craft while it was airborne.) The flying device thumped onto a field and was quickly attacked by sheriff's deputies, who punched holes in the balloon to keep it from floating away again. When it became clear that the boy was not inside, the cable news anchors were left to  puzzle out his whereabouts. Maybe, Smith suggested hopefully, he was hiding under his bed.

[Updated at 3:28 p.m.: In the end, the cable news channels spent the afternoon following an empty balloon through the sky. The news that the 6-year-old boy was found at home hiding in the attic came as an anticlimactic finish to the breathless reports about his whereabouts.

Jay Wallace, vice president of news editorial for Fox News, said the network’s nonstop coverage reflected what news executives knew at the time. “People were running in my office from the newsroom saying, ‘Are you watching this? This is insane!’ ” he said. “All parents had that feeling of ‘Oh, my God, could you imagine being the parent of this 6-year-old?’ It was a drama-made story.”

In a large part, the story was driven by the compelling images of the flying orb, which resembled a silver space ship. “It’s what we do in 24-hour cable news,” he said. “Live pictures are out there, and we follow it to its end. Obviously, we tried to be very respectful of what could go wrong.”

Wallace said that about 10 minutes into Fox's coverage, he switched the footage to a delay of seven to nine seconds. “You hope for the miracle on the Hudson, but on the other hand, you always have to be ready for the worst outcome,” he said.

 -- Matea Gold

Related: Authorities try to find out fate of child after balloon-like craft lands without him inside

ABC's "Wife Swap" family's balloon is subject of airborne drama

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