An excruciating personal drama played out on TV


October 16, 1991|By Michael Hill

In many ways the coverage of the Senate debate on Clarence Thomas was like a political convention in the old days, back when there was still a chance that the roll call vote might yield a surprise.

It has probably been about 40 years since that tally actually did yield a surprise, but, however inevitable the results, there was a certain mesmerizing quality to hearing the speeches for the various nominees, watching the demonstrations, waiting for the poll of the states, hearing officially that the imprimatur of the party had been placed on the nominee.

As with the Senate debate yesterday, you knew that all that rhetoric and hoopla had nothing to do with the decisions on casting ballots that were being made in the back rooms and in the backs of people's minds, but they were part of the essential and compelling political ritual.

Yesterday's full day of Senate debate had that quality. Though it was clear almost from the early morning shows that Clarence Thomas' nomination had survived, the hour after hour of speeches in favor and against had the feeling of the final act of RRTC drama that had grabbed the attention of the nation. Though

you knew the conclusion, you still had to watch it play itself out.

It was, at last, time for the senators to fish or cut bait. Throughout the weekend -- indeed until the fatigue of the wee hours of Monday morning stripped a bit of their pretense -- the members of the Judiciary Committee had leaned heavily on their mannered formalities as they conducted their very public hearing in front of the cameras.

Yesterday, they finally had to decide. Although some still wishy-washed in stating their great respect for both Professor Hill and Judge Thomas, so as not to offend any segment of their constituencies, the senators, for the most part, said whom they believed and why. And after speeches whose rhetoric sometimes soared and sometimes soured, ultimately they voted.

NBC was the only of the three commercial networks to carry the Senate debate during the day. The fact that it has the least popular daytime schedule undoubtedly had something to do with that decision, but it was not necessarily a bad decision from a ratings standpoint.

Consider that on Friday night, the Nielsen national figures show, almost 30 percent of the country was watching the coverage on the two networks carrying it, PBS, CNN or the other cable channels such as C-SPAN and Court TV.

During the day on Friday, the networks attracted a rating of 15 that rose to 20 as the day went on, well above the average 13 daily rating. On Saturday morning the three networks usually attract about a 9 rating, and that's all kids. This past Saturday, they got a 16 rating, almost all adults.

PBS, which provided extensive coverage of the hearings, got some of its highest ratings in history. Though not all of the numbers have made it through the Nielsen computers, overnight ratings from Sunday showed that WNET, PBS' New York station, got a higher rating -- 13.7 --than any other New York station carrying their networks' entertainment programming. KCET, the public station in Los Angeles, recorded the highest ratings for a day in its history with its gavel-to-gavel coverage on Sunday.

Nationally on Sunday, PBS averaged about a 6 rating Sunday night. David Poltrack, CBS' head of research, calculates that figure will rise to total of about a 10 rating for the hearings when various cable coverage is figured in.

"We think it cost us about 20 percent of our audience for the baseball game," Poltrack said of Sunday night's playoff contest between the Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates, a game that had a 12.7 rating.

"The other prime-time games between these teams had ratings of 14 and 14.5," he said. "With this game on Sunday night and later in the series, it would probably have gotten about a 15 without the hearings."

In New York, the overnight figures showed that the Thomas hearings attracted almost twice as many viewers as did the game.

Despite the strong ratings, local stations in Baltimore made some dubious decisions yesterday. At 4 p.m., as the debate was heading toward its conclusion, Channel 2 (WMAR) broke away from NBC's coverage for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and then, at 5 o'clock, for its local news. It rejoined NBC for the scheduled 6 p.m. vote.

"We didn't think anything was really happening," Emily Barr, WMAR's programmer, said of the decision. "It was just a bunch of speeches."

Channel 11 (WBAL) did its own coverage of the vote at the top of its 6 p.m. newscast, finally joining its network, CBS, for the vote and then returning to local news. Channel 13 (WJZ) tried to integrate ABC's coverage into its 6 p.m. news program.

Though Maryland Public Television was committed to its educational program in the morning and, thus, its decision to delay joining PBS' coverage until the afternoon was forgivable, the rest of these local moves were not.

By any measure -- ratings, polls, public service -- this was a story that the American people wanted and deserved to see, a tough political and excruciating personal drama played out on our national electronic stage.

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