On the night of Nov. 8, President Bush delivered a prime-time television address on the state of the ongoing actions in the war on terrorism. Or at least it was supposed to be a prime-time television address. But NBC and CBS decided they had better things to air on a Thursday night, and so two of the three broadcast networks were speechless that night (presidentially speaking).
The next day, a reporter asked a CBS News spokeswoman why the network had snubbed the commander in chief. In a wonderful bit of feigned innocence, the spokeswoman replied that if the president had wanted CBS to carry his remarks, he should have asked.
Yes, the president should have asked CBS for permission to address the nation. That way, CBS would have had the opportunity to say, “Are you kidding? And pre-empt `Survivor’?”
But leaving aside CBS’s disingenuous bit of rump covering, it’s hard to find fault in the decisions by the networks that didn’t carry the speech. (Which if you’re counting all broadcast networks, includes Fox, The WB, UPN, Pax, Telemundo and Univision.) Apparently, most people didn’t care one way or the other. My phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook the next day. I didn’t even hear from those readers who are usually able to detect the subtle left-wing bias in “Iron Chef.”
Perhaps the fallout would’ve been heavier if the president had used his half-hour of airtime to announce, say, air strikes on Iraq. But if that had happened, you can bet NBC and CBS would’ve suddenly found room in their busy prime-time schedules to cover it-whether the president asked them to or not.
Instead, it was left to ABC alone to carry the address. That network was rewarded with a tidy 15 share in the 8 p.m. half-hour, much better than it usually does and not far behind second-place “Survivor.” Does anyone with a television set not get ABC?
I wouldn’t mind if Nov. 8 were used as an example for all future presidential prime-time talks. Here’s how it might work: As soon as the time and date of the speech is announced, the two top-rated networks in that time period would agree not to carry the address. Then network No. 3 could have all the eyeballs-and maybe run a few promos for its news department in the bargain.
As a formality, the White House communications chief could even phone the third-place network and ask if it would please carry the president’s speech.
And on the `24′ front …
Speaking of new precedents, I’m not sure whether it’s a move of cunning strategy or simple desperation, but I’m all for Fox’s decision to double-pump its less-than-hit-drama series “24.” But then, I’ve got pride on the line. Like every other TV critic in America, I thought “24” was one of the most impressive new shows of the fall season. So imagine my disappointment on seeing the series premiere in third place then fall to fourth place the following week, behind “Frasier,” “NYPD Blue,” even “The Guardian” on CBS.
Fox had planned to re-air episodes of “24” later in the week on its cable sister FX. But for three weeks running, Fox has also been re-airing that week’s episode on the network-twice on Fridays and last week on Saturday.
I’ve heard from some viewers who are watching the weekend repeats, and they’re apparently showing up in the Nielsen ratings, too. The first Friday “24” actually outperformed “Pasadena,” the show that’s normally in that time period, and Fox says the two broadcasts now reach a total of 16 million “unduplicated viewers.” I’m not sure I’d be able to tell an unduplicated viewer from a duplicated one, but if this means Fox is planning to stick with “24” for the whole 24-episode season, great. If it means viewers will continue to have four chances to watch it-and no excuses not to-even better.
Aaron Barnhart’s column appears monthly in EM. He covers television for the Kansas City Star.