Cable TV contemplates Life Without Lewinsky

Shows consider strategies for post-impeachment era

February 12, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- At the 3 p.m. news meeting for "Hardball With Chris Matthews," a CNBC public affairs show, producers gathered one day this week near a bank of 11 television sets blaring Monica Lewinsky news and planned a segment on "The Post-Acquittal World."

The staff liked the idea for one show, but what about for the long run? Cable shows like "Hardball" that have seen viewership soar during the White House scandal are now looking at Life Without Lewinsky. With the anticipated end of the impeachment trial today, the question is simply: What's next?

"There will be no story as consuming as this," said Adam Levine, a senior producer for "Hardball."

"I gotta tell you, after this story, I don't know what we're going to do," said Bob Petrick, a Washington producer for "Rivera Live," the CNBC show starring Geraldo Rivera.

Some producers are relieved to be free of the daily burden of following a story that had left many viewers disaffected but that networks felt compelled to cover. To them, today marks the beginning of a new chapter, a chance to pursue stories with drama but not necessarily scandal -- like the Y2K problem or the latest crisis in Iraq.

But others saw the story as the news that packed an irresistible mixture -- politics, the law, sexual dynamics and personalities from Ginsburg to Goldberg. To these folks, the story is far from over. Even if it dies today, it can easily rise from the dead tomorrow.

"There's going to be a lot more about this," said Sean Hannity, co-host of the Fox News Channel mostly-scandal-analysis program, "Hannity & Colmes." "There will be discussions about this going on for the next year at least and probably through his presidency."

Some media analysts say the absence of the Lewinsky story poses a big problem for cable shows that are looking to retain the audiences they attracted over the past year.

"There are certain media outlets that are almost completely dependent on the existence of one big scandal story to chew over," said Steven Brill, founder of Court TV and now the editor of Brill's Content, a magazine that analyzes the media.

"Now, [a scandal-driven media outlet] doesn't even have an ostensible product to sell," Brill said. "What will you do? Will you see MSNBC doing one- or two-hour talk shows on Social Security policy? It's hard to imagine. And that doesn't make them bad people. Would you see anyone watching one or two hours of Social Security policy?"

Instead, cable shows like "Hannity & Colmes" are planning to chase the Monica fallout: The post-impeachment analysis is already under way, a Justice Department investigation of Kenneth W. Starr's investigation is grabbing new headlines and the discussion of the fate of Clinton's allies and the Republican Congress will unfold into the new millennium.

Getting warmed up

Some scandal analysts are just getting warmed up. On Hannity's show, Clinton's former adviser Dick Morris declared that the trial's end only marked the halfway point in the story.

"You keep hearing people want this to go away, but they keep watching and keep listening to it," said Hannity, a conservative radio talk-show host who became a visible Fox personality thanks to the scandal. Last month, his show posted higher ratings than MSNBC's "News with Brian Williams," a broad-based news show anchored by the man billed as the next Tom Brokaw.

In the cable world, CNN still dominates. But increasingly, the saturation coverage of the Lewinsky scandal found on cable has given the newer shows a regular place in viewers' homes.

"We're what people turn on to replace the family arguments around the dinner table," said Chris Matthews, the 100-decibel host of "Hardball." "Now that they're older, and their kids are gone, they're saying: `Where's the noise?' Well, we're the noise!"

It was a good year to be the noise. Matthews' show went from a half-hour to an hour after the scandal broke, and viewership jumped 63 percent to 594,000 from January 1998 to January 1999. Levine, the show's senior producer, recognizes that not everyone is rejoicing in this success.

"A lot of people are rooting for political shows to take a dive," Levine said. "But through cable TV and the Internet, there's a renewed interest. It functions as entertainment, and that's not a disparaging remark."

Levine says he believes the fast-paced nature of cable news involves viewers in stories in a way that other media cannot. And a show that generates attention also generates sought-after guests. That was a reality made evident by White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff's presentation on the Senate floor this week, when in disputing a prosecution argument, he quoted word for word Chris Matthews and Rep. James E. Rogan in a "Hardball" interview.

When the Clinton scandal fades into the background, Levine said, "Hardball" will apply the same formula to the presidential race in 2000 and other political stories.

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