CBS call-in show after Bush's speech is 'unprecedented' or merely 'old By hat'

January 28, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

CBS News says it's an "unprecedented interactive" exercise in TV democracy.

CNN says it's old hat programming -- the kind of stuff it was doing years ago when the then-fledgling cable channel didn't have the money for more imaginative news coverage.

Both are exaggerating. But the CBS game plan tonight to open up 800-number phone lines following the President's much-anticipated State of the Union address rather than do expert analysis has people in the TV news business talking about what some see as a more viewer-oriented approach to political coverage in 1992.

The plan calls for CBS News to carry the State of Union speech starting at 9 p.m. like many other broadcast networks and cable channels (ABC, NBC, C-SPAN, CNN, PBS and even Comedy Central). It will also carry the Democratic response.

But, then, instead of the usual round of "experts" analyzing what's been said, Dan Rather and Connie Chung will host a show that will feature viewers being offered a toll-free 800-number. Viewers will be asked to call with their opinions about the President's speech. CBS said that advances in telephone and computer technology will allow it to tabulate 300,000 calls during the hour, some of which will be aired live. Charles Kuralt will report during the show from what CBS calls the "telephone nerve center" in Omaha, Neb.

"Never before has any news organization attempted to gauge the mood of the country on such a large scale following a president's State of the Union speech," Lane Venardos, co-executive producer of the special, said yesterday.

But Tom Hannon, the director of political coverage for CNN, said, "CNN's been doing [viewer call-ins] for years. Quite frankly, we would have been hard-pressed for programming in those early years if the telephones didn't exist. I think it's wonderful that CBS is turning in that direction as well. I'll be interested in how their experiment works out."

In addition to CNN, C-SPAN has also made extensive use of viewer call-in following such news events. In fact, cable's public affairs channel will be counterprogramming CBS with its own viewer call-in tonight.

Hannon and others say the significance of the CBS call-in show is whether it succeeds as part of a larger pattern by several TV news organizations to involve viewers more in their political coverage during this election year.

"It seems that 1988 was the culmination of a number of trends that produced something that virtually nobody was happy with," Hannon said. "I think the biggest lesson we learned was that to the extent that you rely exclusively on the campaign trail to generate a broad discussion of the issues, you are going to be frustrated. . . . One of the things we're going into '92 hoping is that we can put something approaching a co-equal emphasis on voters and the agenda as well as developments on the campaign trail."

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