White House Gives In to Networks on Matter of National Importance

By: By David Goetzl
By: By David Goetzl

WASHINGTON -- Where have you gone Walter Cronkite? Time was, the White House would request networks give it a prime-time spot for a Presidential address -- perhaps on a topic as critical as, say, launching missiles in a distant land to fight a dictator versed in terrorism and prevent genocide. Those requests were largely pro forma. ABC, CBS and NBC would say yes, no problem.

The trio could use the speech to provide exposure for their news operations. Maybe they also felt that, since they were on the public airwaves, providing the President with a chance to reach the most people was good public service.

No longer. Even a President promising to answer questions about a military initiative with an unclear national interest isn’t considered a bankable star. It’s not a sure bet a network will alter its schedule for the Commander in Chief and his commercial-free programming.

And the White House seems willing to play along.

The latest example came Monday with the President’s Libyan speech. ABC wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of having to preempt “Dancing with the Stars,” while the other networks weren’t keen on schedule changes either.

The White House apparently understood and negotiations with the networks resulted in the speech airing at 7:30 p.m., according to the New York Times. And as it turned out, networks actually gave up no air time for the address, instead nudging its affiliates to give up the ad revenue.

“The White House routinely works with the networks, as a group, in circumstances like these to find a time that’s respectful of both the networks and their audience – while ensuring that the President has the platform he needs to deliver an important message to the American people,” a White House spokesman told the Times.

Willingness to give the speech before prime time marks an extraordinary capitulation on the White House’s part. These days, many Americans on the East Coast aren’t even home from work at 7:30, while and out West are still locked in a cubicle, though they can watch on the Web.

Sadly, the White House is simply reacting to reality. Presidential program preemptions are expensive and networks are less pleased than ever to take the hit.

In 2009, a Presidential news conference was estimated to result in a $10 million sacrifice in ad revenue for the Big 4 networks. Fox decided to keep its share, denying President Obama’s request for the air time in favor of carrying drama “Lie to Me.”

Denying Presidential aspirations was nothing new for the News Corp. network as it also turned away President Bush’s request in 2001, two months after 9/11.

Fox is a different case than ABC, CBS and NBC, though, since it had no news operation. But news is such a fading part of what the other three networks do thses days that they have little desire to use a Presidential lead-in to showcase their anchors and analysts.

In some ways, they are content to let the cable news networks dominate the post-game analysis, especially with Fox News marking a significant challenge there.

When networks can't win the maneuvering and put a speech in the innocuous 7:30 slot, they can grudgingly take a show-and-blow approach. At CBS, for example, that could involve playing nice with the White House and carrying President Obama, then having Katie Couric ask an analyst quick questions and on to “NCIS.” That's if Couric comes on at all.

All four networks did air the President’s address in January in the prime 9:00 time slot during the memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shootings.

But in fairness when they give short shrift, maybe they are actually doing a kind of public service. They’re keeping the audience happy. The bulk may not care about geopolitical crises.

Last year, fans were fearful ABC would preempt the final-season premiere of “Lost” in order to carry the “State of the Union” address. The White House felt ABC’s pain and didn’t want to risk putting the network in a tough spot – or alienating its potential voters. It made sure the speech did not conflict.

Part of White House press conference was even devoted to the complication. And the press secretary sought to assure the American people the President had no desire to feed them information about creating jobs and lowering the cost of health care if it meant depriving them of a favorite drama.

Would this current network vacillation and White House capitulation have taken place during the days of Cronkite and “Gunsmoke”?

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