By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Barack Obama's inaugural organizing committee has struck deals with three television networks to the tune of more than $5 million, giving the networks exclusive access to inaugural events. But the arrangement is prompting questions about the president-elect's efforts to raise money by turning his inauguration into made-for-TV productions.
All told, Obama's licensing of inaugural events to TV is the most ambitious and expensive in presidential history. Bill Clinton's committee licensed events to HBO and CBS during his first inauguration in 1993, but other presidential committees have generally shied away from selling exclusive rights to official events.
For $2.5 million, HBO purchased the rights to air Sunday's all-star kickoff concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden will attend. The concert, featuring the musical stylings of Beyoncé, U2, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder, among others, will be available on television only to those who receive HBO and to households that receive digital cable. In the Washington area, between 60 and 75 percent of cable subscribers will be able to see the concert on cable systems owned by Comcast and Cox Communications.
Walt Disney Co. has paid $2 million to the committee for two programs that will air on its Disney Channel and on its ABC network. The Disney Channel will televise a children's concert Monday night at Verizon Center. Hosted by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the event will feature singers Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovoto, all of whom are Disney Channel stars. Disney will be the only network permitted to carry the concert live.
ABC will carry the "Neighborhood Inaugural Ball," the first of 10 official balls, next Tuesday. The highlight of the program at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center is likely to be Obama's first official speech of the evening and the Obamas' first dance as president and first lady. The ABC program will carry commercial breaks, meaning the network may be able to turn a profit on the event.
ABC won't have to compete with other TV networks for the newsworthy and historic footage from the neighborhood ball: Press access has been restricted to the small pool of reporters who monitor the president at all times. The organizing committee has said that in the interests of offering a "behind the scenes scoop," bloggers will be posting updates from inside the Convention Center. According to spokesperson Linda Douglass, the bloggers will be three staffers of the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
MTV, which is owned by Viacom, has paid $650,000 for rights to broadcast the Tuesday night "Youth Ball," which Obama will attend.
The production company RK Denver will receive a more than $5 million licensing fee from the networks to partially cover the cost of televised productions. The committee itself is paying $10 million toward those four televised events, according to Douglass.
Network representatives said inaugural committee planners "shopped" the TV rights and sought the most attractive offers. By selling the rights on an exclusive basis, the committee maximized their value, they said.
"If it's exclusive to you, people will watch you," said Kevin Brockman, an ABC spokesman. "It makes it a TV event."
"We searched around to find broadcasters to reach as many people as possible," Douglass said. "Our goal is to be as open and as accessible as possible."
The TV contracts, however, have prompted questions about the committee's efforts to raise funds by turning inaugural events into TV productions that benefit a single entertainment concern, rather than pooling the footage so that it is widely available to all.
"I'm extremely disturbed by it," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington group that promotes media-ownership diversity. "The Lincoln Memorial has such significance, and to not make [the concert] available to the entire country just seems elitist."
HBO says it is "encouraging" cable and satellite TV providers to make the 100-minute Lincoln Memorial concert, which begins at 2:30 p.m., freely available to all their customers. But cable companies say technical and legal reasons will likely prevent them from doing so everywhere.
In Fairfax and Fredericksburg, for example, Cox will show the program only to people who receive digital-channel service. That leaves out about 40 percent of cable subscribers. Comcast, whose cable systems cover most of the Washington area, says about 75 percent of its subscribers receive digital cable and will be able to see the Lincoln Memorial concert. People who don't receive cable or satellite service -- about 14 million in all nationwide -- will be shut out as well.
HBO spokesman Quentin Schaffer said the concert would be streamed online at HBO.com for those who can't see it. National Public Radio will also carry audio of the event.
The exclusive deals also have riled some in the news media who say the events are of historic importance and thus newsworthy.
A C-SPAN spokesman, John Cardarelli, said the network was told by the inaugural committee that it could not cover the neighborhood ball.
C-SPAN and other networks faced a similar situation in 1993 when HBO had exclusive rights to carry an inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The networks were permitted to cover remarks by Clinton and Vice President-elect Al Gore along with readings, but were banned from showing live footage of such musical acts as Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
As for tomorrow's event at the Lincoln Memorial, Cardarelli said, "We are still hoping we can show those remarks live, but it is the Presidential Inaugural Committee that's setting the restrictions because they are the ones who sold the exclusive rights to this."
The inaugural committee has raised about $35 million in contributions, having imposed restrictions that banned direct donations from corporations, political action committees, foreigners and registered lobbyists. Individuals were also limited to $50,000.
Staff writers Richard Leiby, Nikita Stewart, Lisa de Moraes and Jose Antonio Vargas contributed to this report.