White House Shift Led to Network Coverage

White House Shift Led to Network Coverage (AP)

A quick schedule shift by the White House enabled President Bush to get considerably wider television exposure than he would have otherwise gotten for Thursday’s prime-time news conference. Three of the nation’s four biggest broadcasters gave the president a quick hook, however, by cutting away to entertainment programming before his session was finished.

The White House moved the news conference from 8:30 p.m. EDT to 8 p.m. after realizing that CBS, Fox and likely NBC would not air it live. ABC said all along it would cover the president fully. The White House tried to be accommodating when it realized it had left the networks in a bind on the first night of the May “sweeps,” when ratings are closely watched to set local advertising rates, said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. “I think this worked out for everyone involved,” he said.

Bush alluded to a tight television deadline before answering the night’s final question. “I don’t want to cut into some of these TV shows that are getting ready to air, for the sake of the economy,” he said. He was already too late. Shortly before 9 p.m., both CBS and NBC shifted away from Bush for analysis as the next-to-last question of the news conference was being asked. The networks ignored the last two questions and were airing “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” before the president finished talking. Fox anchor Shepard Smith abruptly cut into Bush’s answer of the final question to shift away to Paris Hilton and “The Simple Life: Interns.” ABC stayed with the president until he concluded.

Twenty-four hours earlier, the White House informed the networks that Bush wanted to set aside time for the fourth prime-time news conference of his presidency. Not only did the networks face a last-minute disruption during sweeps, it was to come on a Thursday — generally the most lucrative night for advertising revenue, largely because Hollywood studios are touting the weekend’s new movies. It’s especially important at top-rated CBS, where Thursday mainstays “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Survivor” and “Without a Trace” are all regulars in Nielsen Media Research’s top 10 shows of the week.


Although networks generally cover presidents’ speeches and news conferences when requested, there is precedent for turning them down if there’s no national emergency or if the request comes during a political campaign, said Martha Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University in Baltimore. “The networks are in a different kind of business than they were in the Nixon and Reagan years,” Kumar said. “It is a business. News is less of a driver than entertainment.”

Quite true. Plus, in the old days, the networks were just competing with one another and, so long as all covered the speech, there was no harm done. Now, with so many cable and satellite channels, that’s not the case. And, of course, most people have the ability to watch the coverage on one of the many news channels, as I did anyway.

Update: The NYT’s Jacques Steinberg is impressed.

How the President’s News Conference Ended Up Live on Four Networks (RSS)

In a showdown that featured inside-the-Beltway lobbying and bare-knuckle boardroom negotiating, Donald J. Trump and President Bush effectively squared off yesterday in pursuit of the same parcel of real estate – a piece of the NBC-TV prime-time lineup. And it was the president who blinked first. But in the end, the president’s aides appeared to be every bit as canny as those representing Mr. Trump. The decision by the White House to move up the starting time of its news conference by a half-hour – a move that NBC sought, at least in part to protect the starting time of Mr. Trump’s “Apprentice” show – set off a chain of events that wound up garnering the president live coverage on all four major broadcast networks.

And I’m not sure what this says about the state of gay rights:

In the end, NBC decided that it could afford to pre-empt “Will and Grace,” but not “The Apprentice.”

Of course, were it not for the press conference, I’d not have watched television at all last night. I’ve finally given up on “E.R.” after having about 11 episodes stacked up on my TiVo and deciding I didn’t care if I ever saw them. I’ve never seen a complete installment of either “Will and Grace” or “The Apprentice” nor have I ever even been tempted to watch “The O.C.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Scott Dillard says:

    Does anyone really care anymore what ABC, CBS or NBC covers? Is it important? I know some see it as a sign of disrepect, but is anyone concerned? (then again, I haven’t watched anything on network TV in years.)