Networks were glued to Senate hearing Powerful drama pre-empted even local news shows

October 12, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It was a day of remarkable and powerful television. It included conflict, anguish, anger and graphic talk of sex. And it resulted in network and local broadcasters blowing out their entire schedule of daytime and early-evening programming to cover events in a Senate hearing room.

But it probably left most viewers more confused than ever about Judge Clarence Thomas, law professor Anita Hill and the allegations of sexual harassment that she has leveled against him.

In TV terms, both Thomas and Hill performed well. He communicated a sense of anguish -- a man wronged.

She came across as a reluctant witness, submitting to the ordeal of public testimony out of a sense of duty to tell the truth.

What made the proceedings so compelling right from the opening bell was the visceral nature of the exchanges with Senate questioners. The key players were going for the gut, trying to score emotional rather than intellectual points. Emotion works on TV; complicated intellectual arguments do not.

Thomas radiated indignation at the allegations and used red-hot words, such as "lynching" and "humiliation" to describe the confirmation process.

Hill, on the other hand, spoke with a specificity about the alleged sexual talk that is not usually heard on broadcast TV -- not even in soap operas, let alone in the august hearing room in which TV viewers have seen so much postwar history play out.

Her words had the electricity of the taboo. And, like the soap operas the hearings were pre-empting, there was also the sense of sexual secrets being revealed.

TV news operations, which started the day committed only to coverage until noon, understood that something hot was happening on the screen and committed to the hearings throughout the day in a way that they had not done since the most intense moments of the Persian Gulf war.

How hot was it? There was no early local and nightly network news on Baltimore TV in their regular time spots last night; even at the height of the failed Russian coup in August, affiliates broke from the coverage for local news.

All the networks but CBS continued to televise the hearings when Thomas testified again at 9 p.m. CBS found itself between a rock and a hard place because of its commitment -- part of a $1 billion contract with Major League Baseball -- to broadcast Game 3 of the American League playoffs. An embarrassed Dan Rather told viewers they could watch the testimony "on other channels."

CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBS, ABC and NBC all planned to resume coverage today, with local affiliates saying they plan to carry the network feed, tentatively scheduled to start at 10 a.m.

Radio coverage in Baltimore was planned by WJHU (88.1-FM) and WBAL (1010-AM).

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