At critical juncture, big 4 networks elect not to televise speech by Bush

Major broadcasters say White House did not request air time

May 25, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

President Bush was not simply giving a speech at a sympathetic campus last night - although he was certainly doing that. Bush's first words - "I come here tonight to report to the nation, and to the Iraqi people" - made clear that he would be defending his handling of the war at a time when polls show Americans have growing doubts about his leadership.

Yet, Bush's speech was not carried by any of the big four broadcast networks - ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC - each of which decided to stick with their revenue-producing entertainment programs for the evening. Network officials gave nearly identical explanations, saying that the Bush administration had not requested network time to address the nation.

"The White House did not ask for time," said Cathie Levine, a spokeswoman for ABC News. "When they do, we tend to give it to them."

Commercial broadcast networks do not own most of their affiliated stations. When a major presidential address is planned, each notifies its affiliates that they need to carry the network's news coverage. But absent a formal request from the White House or a major breaking crisis, commercial networks rarely require pre-emption of popular prime-time shows - especially during sweeps periods such as this month, when network ratings help determine advertising rates.

ABC showed the Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind last night, while CBS aired sitcoms. Meanwhile, Fox and NBC broadcast their respective Monday night "reality" shows: The Swan, about contestants seeking plastic surgery, and the gross-out competition Fear Factor. But the two networks' cable siblings, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, carried the speech live and built their night's shows around the talk, as did rival CNN.

According to Fox News spokesman Paul Schur, local Fox stations were also offered the choice of taking the live feed instead of the network's show.

Locally, the speech could be heard rather than seen, on radio outlets such as WYPR-FM, the regional National Public Radio affiliate, and WBAL-AM, which carries CBS News reports. Like more than a few talk show hosts, WBAL's Chip Franklin attacked the networks yesterday for failing to carry the president's speech to the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

"What am I missing?" Franklin asked. "With a soldier a day dying in a war that is arguably one of the most pivotal moments in American history, we choose sitcoms instead?"

In an interview last night, Franklin elaborated: "Look, it's the president. We should hear what he has to say." But he said he thought the White House failed to make its case to the networks: "It's a combination of soulless Hollywood vs. clueless Washington."

However, White House aides did not signal that the speech would serve up significant new initiatives. Instead, it was presented as a vigorous restatement of the U.S.-led coalition's peaceful intentions. The three networks with nightly newscasts played the plans for the speech at the top of their shows, playing it against recent polls filled with bad news for the president.

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