Bush Talks, But Networks Speechless

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Posted by Tony from dsc04-lai-ca-3-167.rasserver.net ( on Wednesday, October 09, 2002 at 3:39PM :

Bush Talks, But Networks Speechless

By Lisa de Moraes

Tuesday, October 8, 2002; Page C01

If the president of the United States gives a speech but the broadcast networks do not carry it live for their tens of millions of viewers to see, did the president actually give the speech?

ABC, CBS and NBC all decided not to carry President Bush's speech live at 8 last night. They said yesterday that they made this call because the White House never asked them to carry the speech live.

But the White House said it did not put in the usual formal request because it wanted to keep the American public from thinking we were going to war.

Yesterday around 4 p.m., the White House was rethinking that strategy. Aides called the networks' Washington bureau chiefs to get them to reconsider and offered to beef up the speech, but still they made no formal request for coverage.

"On this call they were saying things like 'what if we do this, what if we do that,' " one network insider said.

"It's possible they miscalculated. . . . We think it's possible they had second thoughts . . . But they know how this works. If it's important, they ask for the time and we usually give it, especially given the circumstances we're in right now."

Fox suits, who originally said they would not carry the speech live, changed their minds at about 6 p.m. yesterday after canvassing their stations and finding that a significant portion of them wanted the speech. The network worked with baseball officials and got them to postpone the first pitch until the president wrapped his speech, a network rep told The TV Column.

It's customary when the president has something important to say for the White House to formally request the broadcast networks to cover a speech live. For days the White House certainly had been hawking last night's speech as something important, promising that the president would finally explain thoroughly why Congress should pass a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, and describing in the most detail yet Iraq's capabilities and Saddam Hussein's efforts to acquire nuclear technology.

Bush delivered his remarks from the Cincinnati Museum Center, housed in an art-deco rail station that was a major troop transfer point during World War II.

"It's a pep rally," one broadcast news executive complained yesterday morning of the president's speech. "They're trying to move Congress forward.

"This is a little bit of game playing, saying this is a very important speech but at the same time not taking the next step and asking the networks" to carry it, the news suit continued. "Clinton never did this, Bush [senior] never did this; they never said, 'This is an important national speech but we're not asking you for time.' "

A senior administration official said the White House did not ask for time because it wanted to avoid alarming the public.

A request to the broadcast networks "would have started a frenzy of people thinking we were about to go to war," the official told The Washington Post's Mike Allen. "It wouldn't have served the country."

This is the same argument that the White House used on the bureau chiefs last week.

"They told us this was not a policy speech," an exec at one network news operation said of last Friday's briefing. "They were not billing it as an address to the nation. That's the kind of information we use in making our decision."

Though the White House did not formally request live coverage, it had initially expected wide coverage and even scheduled the speech to start at 8:01 p.m., allowing one minute of prime time in which news anchors could introduce Bush's 26-minute speech.

On a more practical note, the administration official added, the networks would have been reluctant to interrupt prime-time programming so early in the new TV season, unless developments were really big.

Yes, the president thinks twice before asking CBS to yank "King of Queens," NBC to pull "Fear Factor" or ABC to scrub Drew Carey just so that he might discuss national security on the public airwaves. Actually, it's a wonder ABC isn't carrying the speech, given its dismal performance with Drew so far this season.

NBC, ABC and CBS broadcast their usual fare at 8 last night on the East Coast. In Los Angeles, where it was not yet prime time when Bush made his speech, stations carried it live.

The broadcast networks' decision could prove a boon to cable news networks, which last Monday at 8 averaged under 3 million viewers.

This fact was not lost on MSNBC anchor Jerry Nachman, whose network averaged a measly 200,000 viewers last Monday at 8. In the first telecast in his show's new, lousy 5 p.m. time slot, Nachman took a swipe at broadcasters, including MSNBC parent NBC, for their call:

"Thirty-six years ago, Fred Friendly, then president of CBS News, resigned in protest when the network refused to broadcast live Senate hearings on the Vietnam War in order to air reruns of 'I Love Lucy,' " Nachman said on yesterday's show.

"Imagine: Those shows were already old in 1966. To journalists he was a hero; to his bosses he was an irritation and an embarrassment.

"What's changed since then? I think it's ambition. At some places, president of the news division became an entry-level job -- their first or maybe second in news. Then it became a steppingstone. Network news presidents keep moving up the corporate ladder. It used to be a terminal position: 'Hey, this is the job I want. Take me off the career ladder.' Not anymore."

- - -

David Letterman has Stupid Pet Tricks. Tomorrow night, Jay Leno has Stupid Penis Tricks.

NBC's "Tonight" show has booked two men who have become "famous," in certain small circles worldwide, for their talent in shaping their male pride into landmarks, fantasy creatures and hamburgers.

But before you change your Wednesday night plans, know that "genital contortionists" David Friend and Simon Morley will not put their considerable talent on display on Leno's show.

They'll appear fully clothed and talk about their stage show, "Puppetry of the Penis," according to a network rep.

Zzzzzzzzzz . . .

The two guys, who are from Australia, got their start doing this in barrooms -- I know, what a surprise.

Dressed only in shoes, socks and capes, Morley and Friend twist and shape their private parts into such objects as a hamburger, the Eiffel Tower and the Loch Ness monster. Onstage, the results are projected onto gigantic 16-foot screens behind the performers.

Their show plays on three continents, the Associated Press reports. A "Tonight" producer recently caught the act in Los Angeles, thought it funny and "invited the guys on to talk about what they do without showing it," a show rep told AP.

-- Tony
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