Just moments after the White House's tweet last Friday announcing President Obama's prime-time press conference on Wednesday to discuss health care reform, media industry speculation began swirling over which broadcast networks would refuse to carry the presidential presser, the way Fox walked away from an Obama press conference in April.
The chatter represented the continuation of an unprecedented pity party television executives have been throwing themselves since Obama was inaugurated and began regularly communicating with the American people through network television. Bellyaching endlessly about lost viewers that Obama's prime-time press conferences have caused (American Idol got bumped!) and complaining contemptuously about advertising revenues that the commercial-free Q&A were eating up, network suits have been egged on by media reporters.
"[Fox] should be praised for not giving up a third night of lucrative prime-time television for yet another presidential press conference," cheered the New York Daily News' Richard Huff, following the network's snub of the president. The Obama pre-emptions were "pure inconvenience," he stressed.
The reasons network execs have cited while moaning about airing Obama's press conferences have been bogus, especially the claim about lost advertising revenue, which we'll detail below. But as broadcast executives huddle to decide whether to grant the president access to the airwaves on Wednesday, which, incidentally, belong to the public and which networks use for free, it's important to point out why there's no plausible reason this time around for any of the networks to refuse to air the press conference.
And here's why: Pretty much nobody is watching the networks' prime-time programming this summer anyway.
Meaning, Obama's press conference isn't going to cause havoc with network schedules the way executives claimed previous prime-time White House events did in the winter and spring. The press conference is not going to cost the broadcast outlets big lost ratings for the simple reason that this is "The Summer People Stopped Watching Network TV," as Gawker recently dubbed it. The networks have so few viewers tuning in this summer that, if anything, Obama's presence might actually boost the overnight Nielsen numbers.
And I'm not exaggerating about the drop in viewers for this summer. The networks recently posted the lowest set of weekly ratings ever -- like, in the history of broadcast television. So network suits, who apparently have no idea how to program their entertainment schedules to attract viewers, can spare us the complaints about how Obama's penchant for prime-time press conferences cause a ratings dip; how the pressers are driving viewers away; or how I Survived A Japanese Game Show might get pre-empted. (We can only hope.) The network pros seem to have figured out how to drive viewers away on their own. Don't hang that on Obama.
And don't hide behind Nielsen numbers as a way to try to justify ignoring the networks' (supposed) commitment to public service, which occasionally takes the form of granting the president of the United States some uninterrupted airtime. (Novel concept, right?) Networks have done that for decades, but, for some reason, since Obama arrived, the networks, and the press corps, have adopted an entirely new standard for press conferences, and in the process unveiled an unmasked contempt for the White House that I'm not sure we've ever witnessed before.
For instance, here's how one network exec put it to the very sympathetic Hollywood Reporter, in an article about how entertainment suits were "seething" about Obama-related pre-emptions [emphasis added]:
"[T]he next one better involve something really important to the American people, or the networks are going to tell the White House to buzz off."
The same Hollywood Reporter article noted how "top network execs quietly are hoping that Fox's well-publicized rejection of the president's April 29 press event will serve as precedent for denying future White House requests for prime airtime."
That's right. Apparently network broadcasters don't want to be in the business of airing Obama press conferences in prime time. Period.
Buzz off, indeed.
I'm not suggesting that it's entirely new for broadcast networks to voice concerns about presidential pre-emptions. The topic has arisen, periodically, in successive presidencies dating back to Ronald Reagan, who regularly scheduled prime-time Q&A's with the press. But the intensity of the Obama-era pushback from the networks (the deep-seated animosity on display), as well as the swiftness with which executives began to bitch and moan has been, I think, without precedent.
Read this anonymous quote from a bitter TV executive in The Washington Post, just three weeks after Obama was sworn in:
"Do people really want to come home after looking for a job, or after being at a job they hate, sit down to veg out in front of their favorite show -- and he's on again?" said one TV suit, who suspects/hopes the Average Joe's reaction to too much Obamavision might be "nothing he's going to say is going to help me get a job, or put food on the table."
Again, have we ever seen that kind of open contempt for a president within the television business before? I doubt it.
Here's another reason why network execs have no case for ignoring Obama's Wednesday press conference: It's about a vitally important topic (health care reform) and one that's bound to make news. Back in late April, TV bosses, and even some journalists, complained that Obama's press conference hadn't been newsworthy enough.
"We will continue to make our decisions on White House requests on a case-by-case basis, but the Fox decision gives us cover to reject a request if we feel that there is no urgent breaking news that is going to be discussed," one network exec told The Hollywood Reporter.
One suit at Fox explained that "[o]nce it became apparent that there was no national emergency tied to this press conference," the network didn't feel an obligation to air the event.
Anybody detect the scent of double standard in the air? Suddenly prime-time press conferences need to be tied to a "national emergency" or "urgent breaking news" in order to be deemed worthy by the networks? Since when? Since Obama became president, apparently.
In truth, periodic White House pressers in prime time have rarely been about breaking news. They've been about updating the American people on current events and giving journalists a chance to directly ask POTUS questions in front of a large and live national audience. Of course there have been exceptions -- times when press conferences were scheduled specifically to respond to a crisis. But in general, and for decades, that simply has not been how they were treated, either by the White House or the press.
For Obama, though, the networks have concocted a new standard.
Note how Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace obediently defended his boss' decision to snub Obama in April:
WALLACE: Listen, I happen to think -- and I wouldn't always say this -- I think Rupert Murdoch and the Fox broadcast people were right -- there was no news in this news conference. It was simply a commemoration of a day. If he wants to go on cable, but there was no reason for a prime time news conference.
Wallace's claim that the Obama press conference had simply been a "commemoration" was also flat-out wrong. Fact: The night of that particular White House event, the country, thanks in large part to media outlets like Fox News, had been whipped into a national frenzy about the looming threat of a swine flu pandemic, i.e. there was a potential health crisis story breaking the very day Obama took questions from the press. And, of course, the very first question he got was about the swine flu, which gave Obama his first chance to address the nation in prime time about the frightening story.
But according to Wallace, the press conference was a news-free zone, and so, of course, Fox was right to ignore the event -- a snub television execs privately cheered.
And here's the final point about the unsightly pity party the press has been throwing for television executives and which has been hyped by the press: the claim that Obama's commercial-free press conferences robs the networks of millions in lost advertising revenue because ads scheduled to air that hour get bounced.
The naïve notion that networks automatically lose that ad money just isn't true. That's not how the business works, because television advertising is not a zero-sum game. Combined, networks control hundreds of hours of prime-time programming each month and thousands of hours each year. Obviously, if some ads get bumped for breaking news, such as a White House press conference, networks have the ability to air a handful of lost ad slots on other programs, just as networks have done for decades.
Think about it. Do you really think that when networks break into programming for hurricane coverage, or to air a Michael Jackson tribute concert, that the next day, their ad salesmen start writing checks to Procter & Gamble and State Farm because their ads had not run the previous day? That's simply not how the television business functions.
Networks do sometimes, very reluctantly, hand out free spots to advertisers if the networks' entertainment programming, over many weeks and months, fails to live up to the ratings rate that the commercials were purchased on. (They're called "make goods.") And in that case, yes, networks can lose millions in advertising. But to suggest that in the case of a single White House press conference, networks automatically lose every ad dollar from the commercials that don't run that night seems purposefully misleading.
By the way, here's some context for the moaning about lost advertising revenue. Combined, the parent companies of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox generated more than $250 billion in revenues last year. (Yes, $250,000,000,000.) But TV execs are whining about a couple of million that might -- might -- be lost while broadcasting a White House press conference.
Don't you just feel awful?
The fact is, when the federal government granted the broadcast networks extraordinary access to the public airwaves -- and granted that access for free -- the networks promised in return to set aside modest amounts of time to inform the public. White House press conferences, especially those hosted by a newly elected president facing all kinds of historic challenges, clearly represent such occasions.
It's time for the television networks to fulfill their public duty. It's time for them, and the press, to stop whining, and to stop mounting bogus claims about lost ratings and revenues. The networks should air Obama's press conference this week. No excuses.
UPDATE: CBS announced that it will air Obama's press conference on Wednesday. No word yet from the other three networks.