Washington types can't get enough of TV others want the soaps back

Not all networks broadcast all of Starr's appearance

Impeachment Hearings

November 20, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON SUN STAFF WRITER DAVID FOLKENFLIK CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was Godzilla-size on the large-screen television at a local sports bar, but he and his history-making moment did not not seem to captivate the midday lunch crowd nearly as much as the bacon cheeseburgers.

"Everyone's kind of bored with him," said Bill Goodnough, who sells computers to the federal government, as Starr smiled a mammoth dimpled grin from a jumbo screen. "I'm really not listening. I've heard it all before."

Of course, this is history, and to many Washington types, the appetite for the Starr TV drama in the House Judiciary Committee yesterday will always be ravenous. One woman was so intrigued, she waited for hours to watch the proceedings on television in a room next to the committee chambers, using her home video camera to tape the TV screen for posterity.

To these folks, Starr was anything but a Beltway Bore.

"Speed-dial anybody in this town and they'll be watching it," said lobbyist Fred Graefe. "Even though personally I think the impeachment issue has a DNR [Do Not Resuscitate] tag on its toe, it's still interesting to watch the hearings."

Sticking to the script

The television event did have a scripted feel -- and not just because we knew what many of the players would say. After Starr's statement was leaked to the media Wednesday night, and given that Starr stuck so faithfully to it, CNN occasionally flashed the words at the end of his prepared sentences in captions on the screen before he uttered them.

As cameras trained their lenses on Starr, they also caught a not-so-scintillating cast in the background -- including yawn-stiflers, nappers and zoned-out spectators.

No Spencer Tracy

"We're used to seeing a Hollywood actor playing a lawyer, or even a lawyer who is good at playing a lawyer, like in the O.J. Simpson case -- so this is not going to be as riveting," says Steven Chaffee, director of the department of communication at Stanford University. Starr "wasn't Spencer Tracy playing Clarence Darrow."

Network television stations let local affiliates break away throughout the coverage, and even Starr's opening statement was not broadcast on all networks in its entirety. Although nine networks covered the opening of the committee's impeachment hearings, NBC's Tom Brokaw offered the network affiliates the first chance to return to regularly scheduled programming.

"Many stations wanted the option of airing only parts of %o testimony," said an NBC news spokeswoman, Barbara Levin. The network's cable outlet, MSNBC, offered gavel-to-gavel coverage.

CBS and NBC gave affiliates the option of cutting away from Starr's opening statement, while ABC and the cable news networks aired it in its entirety.

The typical Washington operative does keep C-SPAN and CNN on at the office, so for them, yesterday offered something of an all-star drama.

"I just turned the TV down to answer the phone," said Tom O'Hara, a lobbyist for Prudential, who quickly turned it up again to prove his point. Co-workers, he said, "kept interrupting me" with questions when he wanted to be watching.

During a conference call at 11 a.m. yesterday, only O'Hara and another person from Washington had said they had been watching the hearings. Everyone from out of town who was on the call couldn't be bothered to tune in.

Even around Washington, where Starr was blaring on every channel, not everyone was interested. On 35 television screens in the Hecht's department store downtown, not a soul who had arrived for the weekend television sale paid a minute's worth of attention to prosecutor trying to bring down a president.

Only interested in the prices

"They hate that Starr, and they are tired of this Lewinsky," said Emeterio Herce, a Hecht's salesman. "The people are only looking at the sets to see the sale prices."

Some would have preferred to learn that Palmer once again refused to let Dixie speak to Tad -- the plot on yesterday's pre-empted episode of ABC's "All My Children." That show, an episode of "Leeza," or quite frankly anything else sounded better to some than more of the same scandal.

"Waste of time," Cheryl Lewis, a local waitress, sneered when asked if she was watching Starr. "Nobody is looking and we've had him on for two hours. Everybody's just sick of it."

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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