The TV Column

The President's Preemptive Strike

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By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, April 29, 2005

One by one the broadcast networks caved yesterday and agreed to preempt the first night of the May ratings race to make way for President Bush's non-news conference, after ".'Sopranos'-style arm-twisting" by the White House, as one network suit described it.

Here's how it went down:

On Tuesday, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found President Bush's approval rating is at an all-time low of 47 percent, owing no doubt to some combination of a) still no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, b) 60-day tour pitching Social Security "privatization" a bust, c) attempt to use Terri Schiavo for political gain backfired, d) nomination of John "Yosemite Sam" Bolton for U.N. ambassador turning into long nightmare, e) key House ally under attack for alleged ethical improprieties.

What's a president to do?

Hey, here's a great idea! Call a "news" conference for the first night of the May sweeps. That way, tens of millions of hardworking people who had been looking forward to putting up their feet and watching an original episode of their favorite show will instead see the president with his concerned face on, talking about how much he cares about soaring gas prices even if there is very little he can do about it immediately.

And schedule the news conference for 8:30 p.m. so that it doesn't just preempt CBS's "Survivor" but CBS's "C.S.I." as well. And not just NBC's "Will & Grace" and "Joey" (guest-starring Carmen Electra!) but "The Apprentice." Not to mention Fox's "The O.C."

Broadcast networks got word on Wednesday around 7 p.m. that the White House planned to throw a news conference last night.

Fortunately, though Bush runs the country, wiser men run the broadcast networks  men who know what it means to preempt "Survivor," "C.S.I." and "The O.C."

So early yesterday, ABC was the only broadcast network that planned to carry the president's show. Viewers could, of course, also catch Bush on CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNN Headline News and PBS.

You should know that ABC, as a rule, can't get arrested on Thursday nights. It already had nuked its prime-time lineup for Thursday and planned to air the flick "Sweet Home Alabama" followed by "Primetime Live."

ABC generally does so badly on Thursday nights, that being able to wipe one off its books might be seen as a sort of gift. (A presidential news conference and the post- and pre-show blather usually run without advertising, so the ratings are not included in the network's averages).

CBS and Fox, on the other hand, are locked in a death match for first place among the 18- to 49-year-olds advertisers covet. Fox has never won a TV season among that demographic in its 18-year history. CBS hasn't won a TV season in the demo since the 1980s. Thursday night is huge for CBS, and "The O.C." isn't chicken feed for Fox either.


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