America’s Got Talent. And, Wednesday night, America is getting yet another President Obama press conference, this one focused on the President’s pitch for health-coverage legislation. Can it get both?
It will on NBC, which agreed to carry the press conference after the White House moved it an hour earlier, guaranteeing that David Hasselhoff would still be able to judge child singers and circus acts on the network’s highest-rated summer show. [Update: Also, this Wednesday features Meredith Vieira's exclusive interview with Susan Boyle—so hard to get, considering she was made a star by AGT's British sister show—so you can see how this was a conundrum of conflicting journalistic imperatives.]
As with the President’s last press conference, ABC, CBS and NBC will carry it, while Fox will abstain. And the scheduling move shows that, six months and numerous primetime appearances into his presidency, Obama’s ability to command primetime real estate is not unlimited.
There’s been political debate as to whether the networks are obligated to carry the press conference (because healthcare is such a pressing public issue) or to skip it (because the presser is an orchestrated political event). Ultimately, it’s not the politics that dictate the networks’ decision here, but money. They give up millions in ad dollars to carry primetime press conferences commercial-free. And considering the anemic ratings for Obama’s recent ABC special on healthcare, it doesn’t bode well for the presser as a lead-in to any network’s later programming.
I can’t say I feel strongly about the networks’ carrying the conference. (As I noted last time, networks chose not to carry pressers under Clinton and both Bushes as well.) Journalistically, their news divisions have a responsibility to cover the issue; whether they do so by giving blanket coverage to a particular press conference is their call. And while there is still a (diminishing) percentage of Americans who receive only broadcast TV, with the conference to be available on cable (including Fox News), online and on radio, the issue is less actual access than it is deference, appearance and publicity.
On the other hand, I would hope at least that the networks based their decision on newsworthiness, and not the ad dollars generated by a night of programming in a low-rated summer for broadcast TV. With viewers abandoning network TV in droves, the White House is the least of any broadcaster’s problems right now.