CBS isn't losing much by airing Gingrich live

April 07, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The power of Newt Gingrich and the impotence of CBS' "Burke's Law."

Analysts say both are crucial to understanding the unprecedented television event scheduled for tonight -- a speaker of the House getting free network prime time to make what is expected to be essentially a partisan speech. In this case, it's Gingrich talking about the GOP's "Contract With America" and the first 100 days of Congress.

"It's definitely a testament to the political power of Newt Gingrich," said Douglas Gomery, a media economist in the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland in College Park. "But you can see there's a lot more to this event if you look at the different ways that the networks are handling it."

There are major differences. On cable, CNN, C-SPAN and CNBC will offer live coverage of Gingrich's speech -- as well as the Democratic response from House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota -- starting at 8 tonight.

But, of the broadcast networks, only CBS plans to carry it live.

"It was really a news judgment based on the expected news value of what Mr. Gingrich is going to say. That's really it," said CBS News spokeswoman Kim Akhtar, explaining why the network is pre-empting "Burke's Law," it's regularly scheduled -- ratings-losing -- 8 p.m. program.

ABC is not carrying the speech. "Granting network time is something usually reserved for presidents," said ABC spokesman Gary Morgenstein. "This is an important event. But after careful consideration, we have decided against carrying it."

NBC found a middle ground through its ownership of the CNBC information-talk cable channel.

"This is an unprecedented event," said Beth Comstock, vice president for media relations at NBC News. "But . . . we tend to reserve prime time for key presidential addresses, and there have even been times when presidents have been turned down . . ."

In addition to live CNBC coverage, Gingrich will appear on "Today" at 7 this morning, said Comstock. She added that "Dateline" newsmagazine will "be poised" to follow up on the speech at 10 tonight.

Gomery said these "journalistic" decisions should be examined through the prism of what the networks usually air at 8 p.m. Friday, and the potential profit or loss.

ABC has the highest-rated 8 p.m. show in "Family Matters," followed by NBC's "Unsolved Mysteries." "Burke's Law" on CBS is last in the ratings.

"It's kind of interesting. ABC's the leader; they don't do it [carry the speech]. NBC's second; they sort of do it. And CBS is last, and they do do it. What a predictive model. . . . Because CBS is third and sinking, what it has to give up to carry the speech is a lot less than the other two," said Gomery, who writes the "Television and Economics" column for the American Journalism Review.

Placed within that context, the political stories out of Washington worrying about Gingrich being given an unprecedented platform by the networks to address the nation might be a bit misleading.

The combination of CBS, CNN, C-SPAN and CNBC does have the potential to reach virtually every household in the nation. But the most recent Nielsen ratings show that combination actually is watched in only about one of every five homes with television sets turned on between 8 and 9 on a Friday night.

Furthermore, Friday is the weeknight of lowest adult viewership. If you factor in HUT (homes using television) levels and several other factors, you come up with Gingrich likely to be seen by no more than 12 million of the 95 million TV households. And, with kids in near-total control of the dial at 8 p.m. Friday, that potential audience could be cut in half.

While it is not a watershed, experts say, tonight's address by Gingrich does seem noteworthy in terms of media, politics and governing via the small screen.

"It's a significant event," says Steve Barkin, who teaches broadcast news in the College of Journalism at UM. "It not only underlines how powerful Newt Gingrich has become in such a short time. It also suggests that at least some of the network executives and journalists see a broader shift from Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill in terms of power and policy priorities."

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