Networks pony up to cover inaugural

The television networks are pulling out all the stops to cover another presidential inauguration, sending their biggest news stars to Washington tomorrow to report on the beginning of President Bush’s second term.

The question is: Why?

At a time when TV newsroom budgets are stretched thin, does it still make sense for the networks to throw so many resources at an event that usually yields few surprises, much less news?

“The inauguration is a celebration of America like no other. … If we were under extraordinary economic pressure, maybe you would give [this amount of coverage] a second thought,” said Paul Slavin, senior vice president of ABC News.

Mr. Slavin and executives from the other networks declined to estimate how much they will spend on inaugural coverage. It’s a safe bet that the costs will be substantial.

ABC, for example, will ship Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer, Charlie Gibson and Barbara Walters to Washington. The other broadcasters and cable networks will bring in their big guns, too.

ABC — lone among the networks in taking the Internet seriously — also will provide 10 hours of coverage on the Web from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., as well as live coverage from the balls, beginning at 9 p.m.

The major broadcast networks will pre-empt their regular daytime lineups for coverage of President Bush’s speech and the other pomp.

Affiliates won’t be required to carry all the coverage. In the Washington area, for example, NBC station WRC-TV (Channel 4) will pre-empt some of the network feed for local reports anchored by Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler, who will be posted atop the Willard Hotel downtown.

A president’s inaugural speech warrants heavy coverage, said Al Ortiz, executive producer and director of special events for CBS News.

“If he’s got a vision for the next four years, this is the place to lay it out,” he said.

But what if the president says nothing new? Wouldn’t the money spent covering an inaugural be put to better use if it helped to reopen a closed foreign bureau or to increase daily coverage of Washington?

Andrew Tyndall, who publishes a newsletter that monitors TV news, said it would be easy to compare inaugurals to the quadrennial political conventions, which have been justifiably getting less airtime on the broadcast networks as the parties squeeze all traces of spontaneity from them.

Like the inaugural, the networks send their big stars to the conventions despite the scripted nature of the events.

But a more apt comparison, Mr. Tyndall said, would be to a State of the Union address or a presidential debate. Washingtonians and others who follow politics closely may not be surprised by what they hear during a president’s inaugural speech, but it’s “a legitimate newsworthy event” to most people outside the Beltway, he said.

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