Even President Barack Obama, a gleam in his eye as he talked at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner two weeks ago, seemed to recognize the special relationship he’s forged with TV networks in the opening months of his administration.
NEW YORK (AP) — Even President Barack Obama, a gleam in his eye as he talked at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner two weeks ago, seemed to recognize the special relationship he’s forged with TV networks in the opening months of his administration.
“A few nights ago I was up tossing and turning and trying to figure out exactly what to say,” he said. “Finally, when I couldn’t get back to sleep, I rolled over and asked Brian Williams what he thought.”
The reference to the NBC anchor and host of the prime-time “Inside the Obama White House” special this spring drew loud laughter.
There’s no denying that broadcast networks and the president have occasionally worked for their mutual benefit: Obama gets public platforms for his ideas and the networks get programming that delivers strong ratings at a time when that’s hard to come by.
“Inside the Obama White House” was a hit, costing relatively little to produce, for a network that’s starved for hits. The two-part series was rerun the same week that it originally aired.
Two of the three most-watched episodes of “60 Minutes” last TV season were devoted to Obama, topped by the 25.1 million people who watched Steve Kroft conduct the first postelection interview with the president-elect in November. An interview with Obama’s brain trust that aired a week earlier drew 18.5 million viewers, and another Obama interview in March had 17 million viewers. The season average for the CBS newsmagazine was 14.3 million, Nielsen Media Research said.
CBS'”Face the Nation” had its biggest audience of the year when Obama appeared on March 29.
The dry subject matter of ABC’s prime-time discussion with the president on health care last month meant it wasn’t a big hit, but it still did better in its time slot than anything else ABC had put on in six weeks. The “Nightline” that completed the discussion that night beat David Letterman and Conan O’Brien in the ratings.
“Obama should change his middle name from Hussein to Nielsen,” said Gail Shister, a writing instructor at the University of Pennsylvania.
The idea of a president who grabs ratings still seems strange, as does the notion a network will need him. Yet Obama has been reliable when so many other things that broadcasters have been trying are failures.
Strong public interest in the president and his policies explains why so many people in television, magazines and newspapers want to speak to him, said Mark Whitaker, Washington bureau chief for NBC News.
Jon Banner, veteran executive producer of ABC’s “World News,” said the White House has clearly sought to make Obama more available to networks than recent presidents have been. Obama is personally popular, more so than his policies at this point, and he’s his own best salesman, he said.
“We will take every opportunity that’s given to us to question the president about the plans he has,” Banner said. “I would not turn any of these opportunities down.”
The network says it does not play favorites. It said the Bush administration turned down several invitations for town hall-style meetings similar to the one ABC recently organized for Obama.
Obama’s critics have raised questions of fairness. Announcement of the ABC plans set Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele in motion trying to raise money to buy airtime for a dissenting opinion on health care.
“The mainstream media has finally decided to dispense with the pointless denial of favorable coverage of the Obama administration,” Steele wrote in a memo to Republicans. ABC countered that it brought in people with disparate points of view to question Obama on health care.
Still, Obama received plenty of prime-time minutes to state his case, and ABC televised parts of “Good Morning America” and “World News” from the White House, too.
Whitaker said NBC took advantage of its access filming “Inside the Obama White House” to film two Williams interviews with the president. News organizations shouldn’t be criticized for spending time with a president, but for how they are using that time, he said.
Some of it played like a valentine, however: See how hard the new president’s staff works! It’s a good bet Obama doesn’t take orders and goes out to buy staff members hamburgers too often when the cameras aren’t rolling. Williams also asked Obama about O’Brien, a clip that allowed for some high-level promotion of the new “Tonight” show host.
While NBC has taken similar insider looks at past presidents, they got one primetime hour. Obama got four.
“Are you going to blame NBC for giving that much time to a very exclusive, interesting and revealing look behind the scenes at the White House? Compared to what, more of ‘The Biggest Loser’?” Whitaker said.
The mutual star-making machinery may not last forever. As Obama holds more news conferences — many of them dry and lawyerly — the viewership is going down. Networks like exclusive opportunities to do things their competitors haven’t, but are no longer happy running prime-time news conferences.
“Some of the blockbuster ratings appeal is starting to wear off a little,” Whitaker said.