Obama Re-runs Prime Time Strategy

President's reality show could be a dud with viewers

By Michael Calderone
|  Thursday, Sep 3, 2009  |  Updated 12:30 AM PDT
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After the White House announced that President Obama will address a joint session of Congress in prime time next Wednesday, broadcast network executives couldn’t be blamed for thinking: “Again?”

Already, Obama has held four prime-time news conferences—far more than his recent predecessors at this point in their presidencies —along with his speech before Congress in February. By preempting prime-times shows, participating networks end up losing advertising revenue each time the president takes the podium, but it’s hard to present themselves as having credible news operations if they decide not to show him.

“If the networks don’t carry it, they ought to be ashamed of themselves,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala. “It’s not like they’re going to be bumping ‘Masterpiece Theater.’ What are they going to run, bikini models eating worms in some kind of contest?”

Actually, such a reality show premise could score better ratings than Obama when he’s talking about health care. This will be the third time since June that Obama has pushed the administration’s health care reform plan to the American people during prime-time, and the ratings indicate that audience interest is dropping.

When Fox broadcasting—not Fox News—decided to air “So You Think You Can Dance” instead of Obama’s prime-time news conference in July, where health care was the dominant issue, the network beat out NBC, CBS, and ABC, all of which carried the East Room presser. Although 24.5 million viewers tuned in across the networks, the total audience was 50 percent less than Obama’s first news conference in February.

And when Obama sat down for a prime-time health care forum moderated by ABC’s Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer, the news special lost to a repeat of CSI: NY.

Still, Begala thinks Obama’s making the right call going on television again, this time in the House chamber. He thinks there’s a “high risk” but potential for “high reward.”

“I think it’s a much better option than doing nothing,” Begala said. “It’s a much better option than doing another presser. It’s a much better option than doing an Oval Office address.”

Unlike Ronald Reagan, a master of the Oval Office address, Obama is more likely to come across as stiff sitting behind a desk. And a press conference always has the potential for going off the rails. Even though the majority of questions in July were on health care, the media focused on the final one from the Chicago Sun-Times Lynn Sweet, which elicited the sound bite of the night - on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Mark Whitaker, NBC's Washington bureau chief, told the Washington Post a couple weeks later that he’d feel better if the White House was “approaching [the networks] with the sense that they had something new to say, rather than that they just wanted to continue a dialogue with the American people.”

“There are other ways of continuing that dialogue than taking up an hour of prime time,” Whitaker said.

And there’s always the possibility that an hour of prime-time won’t help the president’s cause.

 

Ron Bonjean, formerly a top Republican spokesman and now partner at public affairs firm, Singer Bonjean Strategies, said that Obama, coming off a bad month on health care, needs to “change the dynamic,” but wonders if another prime-time talk on health care is going to be effective.

“President Obama is on the verge of jumping the shark with a prime-time audience who cares more about their [television] programs than they may about the policies that he’s promoting right now,” Bonjean said.

“If I’m in the White House communications office, I’d want to preserve the strength and impact of the president speaking in prime-time, Bonjean said, adding that Obama’s rhetorical strength, so evident during the campaign “could turn into a weakness over time if not used wisely.”

Obama has definitely been appearing in prime-time more than his predecessors, according to CBS News Radio White House correspondent Mark Knoller, the unofficial record-keeper in the briefing room.

By Knoller’s count, Bill Clinton had done just one prime-time news conference by this time in his presidency, while George W. Bush hadn’t done any.

Like Obama, both Bush and Clinton spoke before a joint session of Congress the February after they took office. Both also gave a second speech in their first year in office - Bush following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and Clinton in September 1993, to outline his health care goals. Neither gave any other special addresses to Congress except for the traditional State-of-the Union speeches.

“The current White House is trying to demonstrate the national importance it places on health care reform, and nothing, not even an address to the nation from the Oval Office, carries the prestige of a presidential address to a joint session of Congress,” Knoller said.

None of the networks would say Wednesday night whether they would agree to televising Obama’s speech next week. But given the historical implications, they will all probably agree.

Joe Mandese, editor-in-chief of MediaPost, a web site covering media, marketing and advertising, said that the broadcast networks may lose out on about $4-5 million in gross advertising revenue. Still, Mandese said that the net loss would likely be smaller given that the networks wouldn’t have to pay fees for putting on their prime-time shows, and some ads could be rerouted to other time slots.

While CBS and ABC will be airing reruns on September 9, both NBC and Fox have a tougher decision on their hands. Fox has “So You Think You Can Dance”—the same show the network chose to air instead of Obama’s July presser—followed by the much-hyped premiere of “Glee” at 9 p.m. NBC has a new episode of their own reality contest show: “America’s Got Talent.”

But Mandese also pointed out that the networks profit off their agreement with the FCC which stipulates that they need to provide news content in exchange for use of the public airwaves. “It’s part of their obligation,” he said.

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