Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Fox Network is making a smart business move by passing on tonight’s press conference celebrating President Obama’s first 100 days in office. Other networks are losing millions of dollars of advertising revenue to air what amounts to an unpaid political ad.

The primetime press conference always has been made-for-TV theater, and a president usually needs a good reason to hijack the networks. The implicit covenant is that when networks cover the news conference, the conference has to make news. A self-congratulatory summation of Mr. Obama’s first 100 days may be notable, but it is not newsworthy - and this is his third time to take advantage of the privilege. By contrast, during George W. Bush’s first primetime press conference, held a month after the Sept. 11 attacks and days after the opening of Operation Enduring Freedom, he gave the Taliban an ultimatum: Hand over Osama bin Laden or be destroyed. That’s news.

The White House is doing a disservice to the networks by asking them to sacrifice their valuable airtime to Mr. Obama’s vanity, particularly when ratings and ad revenues are shrinking and competition is cutthroat.

But economics plays a role in scheduling even when times are good. Mr. Bush had to negotiate the timing of a 2005 news conference taking place during the first night of May sweeps, and when he went over the agreed-upon half-hour, the networks cut away. Ronald Reagan once suffered the same fate.

There is no tradition of all networks covering every press conference. George H.W. Bush waited three years into his presidency to hold his second evening news session, and the networks skipped it because it was not expected to produce major news. NBC and ABC chose not to cover Bill Clinton’s April 18, 1995, press conference, believing the public was better served with new episodes of “Frasier” and “Full House.”

Those who invoke the civic duty of the networks to cover Mr. Obama are antiquarians living in the pre-cable age. Fox News Channel will be giving the press conference full coverage, so there is no reason for the entertainment side of the house to be punished in the name of redundancy. In this respect, NBC looks particularly foolish since it will hand over all three of its channels to the White House. There is no reciprocal civic duty to tune in, which make press conferences a ratings killer. Mr. Obama’s last press conference carried by Fox had about half the viewership of the entertainment programs that followed.

Primetime press conferences can be dramatic battlegrounds, in which presidents and reporters engage in free-form exchanges over critical national issues. But Mr. Obama and his handlers have eviscerated the spirit of engagement with teleprompted openings and pre-selected questioners. The only possible drama would be teleprompter failure, leaving Mr. Obama at the mercy of his lackluster impromptu speaking skills.

Mr. Obama has not wanted for coverage. A new report from the Center for Media and Public Affairs and Chapman University reveals that Mr. Obama attracted more network news attention in his first 50 days as president than both of his predecessors combined. That explains why White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs recently graded the White House press corps with a “strong A” for its labors. Tonight, thanks to the Fox network, viewers will have a choice - watch Mr. Obama read from his script, or watch actor Tim Roth do the same on the series “Lie to Me.” The title is purely coincidental.

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