Saturday, November 10, 2001

Bratty comedy and he-man angst superceded the national interest on two broadcast networks Thursday night. To the astonishment of many Americans, NBC and CBS chose to air “Friends” and “Survivor: Africa” rather than President Bush’s prime-time speech to rally the country against terrorism.
ABC was the sole broadcast network to air the speech, bumping “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” to a later time slot. Cable networks CNN, MSNBC,CNBC, C-SPAN and the Fox News Channel also broadcast the presidential message, and were later awash in analysis.
There was much to analyze. In 30 minutes, Mr. Bush delivered what many compared to the frank, potent fireside chats of Franklin Roosevelt during World War II and Ronald Reagan’s pivotal speeches of the 1980s.
Yesterday, Mr. Bush’s speech was called amazing, reassuring, focused, and a “mood setter,” among other things.
“It was a remarkable performance,” noted David Gergen of U.S. News & World Report.
But in some minds, that couldn’t compare with the ratings potential of a pregnant, unwed comedian named Rachel and a group of scantily clad adventurers on the veldt.
Granted, the White House did not sulk about the networks’ decision. They did not ask the networks to carry the speech, which technically places it the “optional” category of news coverage. That was the thinking at CBS, anyway, which treated the speech as a “news event rather than live programming,” according to a spokesman.
The network did broadcast it from its Web site, however.
NBC, meanwhile, felt it was covered by its sister cable channels. “We carried the speech on our cable channels MSNBC and CNBC and felt that was sufficient,” said NBC spokesman Alex Constantinople.
It was ABC that was plugged into reality.
“This is a time of national crisis,” said ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. “The president gave an important speech, and we felt we must bring it to the people.”
Some observed yesterday that these network decisions were all about ratings and revenue during November sweeps season. When all was said and done Thursday night, NBC had 28 million viewers for “Friends” and CBS rated 21 million for “Survivor.” ABC garnered 13 million viewers during Mr. Bush’s speech, which is more than twice the normal audience for “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” according to Nielsen.
Still, the networks’ decision to omit the speech is potentially detrimental, providing fodder for the media displeasure mill. Some viewers translate the networks’ decision as a judgment call that implies primetime entertainment antics outrank Mr. Bush even in the gravest times.
“Show displeasure with NBC and CBS by curtailing your advertising on their stations,” advised one visitor to an Internet Web site that hosted an online discussion. “Show them that refusing to show the President’s speech will not increase their advertising revenue.”
Some felt the decision was politically motivated.
“Remember that time the networks refused to put [former President Bill Clinton] on in their prime-time?” wrote one incensed contributor. “Neither do I.”
Contact Jennifer Harper at or 202/636-3085.

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