Is getting tougher in its coverage of the Perot campaign

IS THE FREE RIDE OVER ? TV

July 02, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Two hours of free time on NBC's "Today." An hour of prime time on ABC. A five-part special on the "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather." An any-time-you-want invitation to CNN's "Larry King Live." And, almost everywhere, pictures of the undeclared candidate in brush-cut-and-business-suit posed in front of large crowds and "Perot for President" banners.

Television has been simply wild about Ross Perot. And there is a simple reason for it: Perot has been getting great ratings for whatever TV show he appears on.

No one really understands the alchemy of personality and TV ratings. And, by fall or even next week, Perot could be death in the Nielsens. But, at the moment, he's lighting up the TV ratings like no candidate since John Kennedy in 1960.

All of which means that the already terribly complicated relationship between TV and presidential politics has become even more complicated this summer. And questions about how TV is covering the candidates and how they are coming across in our living rooms seem more urgent than ever.

TV's coverage of Perot is changing. It started out with much of TV dancing to Perot's tune. But in the last two weeks, several TV journalists have found ways to challenge Perot constructively and make the medium work for voter-viewers.

Perot is a great TV story, but also a great challenge for TV, said Tom Yellin, the executive producer at ABC News who produced a prime-time special and late-night town meeting on Perot Monday. "The challenge is in convincing him and his people . . . to put Perot in a position where he doesn't have control . . . where he might have to answer questions that are a little more challenging."

The challenge starts with the ratings.

TV politics '92 officially became a new game June 12, the day after Perot appeared on the "Today" show and the overnight ratings for that appearance came out. The June 11 show, which featured Perot taking calls from viewers, had a 6.0 rating and 30 share, compared with the 3.8 rating and 15 share it usually gets. In other words, Perot almost doubled the regular "Today" show audience. (A rating is the percentage of all TV sets. A share equals the percentage of sets in use. One ratings point equals 921,000 households.)

And it has been the same story for virtually every show featuring Perot on broadcast or cable through ABC's "Who Is Ross Perot?" specials Monday. According to Nielsen overnight ratings, ABC's prime time special finished second with one-fifth of all sets in use tuned to ABC. That's not bad. But the live town meeting featuring Perot did great. It wiped out the competition, winning a larger audience for ABC than the combined audiences of CBS and NBC. Furthermore, the town meeting almost doubled the usual audience at that time for ABC's "Nightline."

Those ratings become even more impressive when you consider that this is the time of year when the television audience shrinks to its lowest because of reruns and changes in viewing habits. Also, because there did not seem to be an audience for it, networks have been cutting back in coverage of presidential politics and taking lots of criticism for it.

And then, along comes Perot: a way to cover politics and double your audience with relatively inexpensive programming. That's why Perot is great TV from the industry's point of view.

But great for TV does not necessarily mean good for the viewer/voter.

Much of the early TV coverage of Perot was so soft that cheerleading does not seem too harsh a description. There were lots of pictures of the Perot rallies, much talk of the polls showing Perot's popularity -- and almost no hard questions.

But that's been changing for the better the last couple of weeks. The visuals are still dominated by way too much many red, white and blue photo-ops, but they are now being framed by much tougher questions, analysis and interviewers unwilling to play Perot's game. And what's coming across on the TV screen is starting to change as a result.

The change could be noticed last week in the wake of newspaper and magazine stories alleging Perot's penchant for hiring private investigators and asking who Perot really was.

CBS News' five-part series last week, for example, started out full of Norman Rockwell images of Perot and his barber and pictures of Perot hoisting Boy Scouts on his shoulders at rallies. But, by week's end, the series was focused on "contradictions" in Perot talk on taxes and the deficit.

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