New York CNN backed off after rival networks ignored its attempt to secure exclusive video from inside Afghanistan during the American-led military attack that began Sunday.
The video, supplied by the Qatar-based independent television network Al-Jazeera, consisted mostly of grainy green footage of flashing lights and tracer fire. But it did include a taped message from Osama bin Laden that was released Sunday afternoon.
The competitiveness and bad blood came in marked contrast to Sept. 11, when the main television networks agreed to share all of their footage from the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC began extensive coverage Sunday shortly after the missile attacks, with anchors Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather in their studios. However, some CBS and Fox markets returned to airing coverage of National Football League games.
On Saturday, Al Jazeera managing director Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali faxed a letter to several American networks saying his company had established an "exclusive relationship" with CNN. Al Jazeera gave CNN the right to use its material for six hours before it could be released to other networks. Any network that disobeyed the directive "shall be held legally responsible and could face prosecution in a court of law," Al-Ali wrote.
Al Jazeera is reportedly the only international network given permission to transmit pictures from inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
"You can see the contempt with which the entire broadcast community viewed this arrangement," said Jeffrey Schneider, an ABC News spokesman. CNN's rivals were able to retrieve the pictures from a satellite feed.
The networks cited the legal concept of fair use, which they said allowed widespread use of broadcast material in the time of a national emergency, said Dianne Brandi, vice president of legal affairs at Fox News Channel.
"These were the only pictures from an area where the United States was beginning a war," Brandi said. "There was no question we would use them."
Fox and ABC didn't even bother checking with CNN. CBS and NBC executives did, however, and were told CNN was enforcing its agreement, spokeswomen said. Both networks used the video anyway.
"The American public's interest was served today by putting its right to be informed above petty competitive issues," said CBS spokeswoman Sandra Genelius.
After the video had already been widely used Sunday, CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson said of the arrangement, "I'm not going to worry about it." He would not discuss whether CNN would try to revisit the arrangement.
"The biggest issue now is not to worry about the competition, but to worry about covering this the best that we can," Isaacson said.
Despite the agreement with Al-Jazeera, CNN was relatively slow to break into its regular programming Sunday with news of the attacks, lagging behind its broadcast rivals.
CNN's bare-knuckled competitiveness overseas has caused conflict before. In April, when China released the U.S. spy plane crew, CNN secured exclusive use of the only satellite transmission facility in Guam for 24 hours when the crew landed there.
Both CBS and ABC have in recent months discussed sharing resources with CNN, particularly on international coverage. Those talks were put on hold following the terrorist attacks.
Sunday's counterattack threw network schedules in flux, particularly at CBS, which had planned to broadcast the Emmy Awards. Instead, the awards show was canceled. CBS scheduled a two-hour "60 Minutes."