Obama's Preemptive Strike

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, February 6, 2009

President Obama's desire to talk -- and talk, and talk -- to the American public could cost broadcast networks millions, and millions, and millions of prime-time TV dollars.

Broadcasters are bracing themselves for the likelihood of three prime-time interruptions in three weeks, totaling at least three hours of prime time -- and ad breaks -- yanked.

"His economic stimulus package apparently does not extend to the TV networks," one network exec noted.

Obama's reps have alerted broadcasters that the president will hold a news conference Monday, according to network execs. It's expected to eat up the first hour of prime time; that alone could cost broadcasters more than $9 million in lost ad revenue.

Obama's also mulling a shorter prime-time appearance Feb. 16 tied to the economic stimulus package. And White House officials have said that on Feb. 24, Obama will address a joint session of Congress to give the equivalent of a two-hour State of the Union speech. Traditionally, the address to the joint houses of Congress given by the newly elected president is not called the SOTU; that'll be next year's speech.

That one, the broadcast networks were expecting; they budget for a State of the Union/Whatev address to preempt two hours of prime time every year around this time.

The networks were awaiting more information about the two Monday prime-time appearances at press time. "They're playing very close to the vest," one network exec told the TV Column.

Monday preemptions are particularly problematic for broadcasters, what with it becoming one of the most competitive nights this season. This Monday at 8, for instance, to accommodate Obamavision, Fox would have to pull an original episode of its extremely popular "House." Price tag: about $3 million.

CBS would have to yank two of its successful sitcoms, "Big Bang Theory" and "How I Met Your Mother," though the network would probably swap its expected-to-be-low-rated "Worst Week" at 9:30 p.m. for the "Big Bang" episode. Final price tag: about $2 mil.

ABC would probably start "The Bachelor" at 9 instead of 8, and scrub its 10 p.m. reality series "True Beauty." Price tag: $1.5 million-ish.

And NBC might chose to preempt "Chuck." Price tag: $1.5 million to $2 million.

Of course, Obama has picked one of the biggest viewership nights of the week for his appearances.

"Notice they're not going on Friday or Saturday," one network exec complained. "They're . . . preempting our better shows. You're not happy to lose a 'House' if you are Fox, or two of the better comedies at CBS, or 'The Bachelor' at ABC -- we're all going to take a bath."

The next week, even if Obama speaks for only about 15 minutes, that's an ad break that the networks won't get back, adding to their losses.

Although the broadcast networks can opt out of carrying these presidential appearances, "you don't want to incur the wrath of the White House" because "if you're on the [poop] list, you are last in line for interviews and things like that," one network exec explained.

But besides the economic hit, broadcasters are worried that this kind of shock-and-awe approach to prime-time preempting might be part of an Obama strategy to charm his way to a new economic-rescue plan. "As we're meeting this guy, from a network perspective, it's like, 'Is this part of the plan for him?' " the network exec said. "Is this what it's going to be: Is he going to take to the airwaves every time he has something to say?"

Such a strategy, of course, could backfire.

"Do people really want to come home after looking for a job, or after being at a job they hate, sit down to veg out in front of their favorite show -- and he's on again?" said one TV suit, who suspects/hopes the Average Joe's reaction to too much Obamavision might be "nothing he's going to say is going to help me get a job, or put food on the table."

Said the TV suit: "He could lose a lot of goodwill doing this."

* * *

Ann Curry has won the race to snag the first interview with Nadya Suleman, the mother of six who gave birth to octuplets last week. Yesterday, Suleman left the hospital and went to her interview with Curry.

The interview will air on "Today" and "Dateline" "in the coming days," NBC News announced giddily. Our source said NBC is blowing out "Law & Order: SVU" for a "Dateline" run of the Curry interview with Suleman on Tuesday at 10.

Suleman has hired the Los Angeles marketing and public relations firm Killeen Furtney Group, a move that suggests the 33-year-old single mother of 14 children under age 8 has got other things in mind, as well. The firm said she's mulling book and other TV offers.

TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus 8," for instance, is one of that cable network's highest-rated shows. It follows Jon and Kate Gosselin and their brood of twins and sextuplets.

* * *

Super Bowl Porn has finally washed up on the beach of the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC confirmed that it received complaints about the incident, in which some Comcast analog cable customers in the Tucson market got 30 seconds of free porn during their viewing of the Super Bowl. In addition to the porn, they're now each going to get 10 bucks hazard pay, compliments of Comcast, to help defray the cost of getting their scorched retinae replaced. Sweet.

Comcast has assured everyone that it's "appalled" by the 30 seconds of porn that it beamed into those Super Bowl-watching homes. Comcast now says a fiber-optics line operated by Cox cable is the root of the evil.

(In that lucky part of Tucson, people get their cable signal from Comcast, but Comcast gets its feed of the local NBC station from the other cable provider in the market, Cox. NBC, you'll recall, had exclusive rights to telecast this year's Super Bowl.)

But as to how it happened, Comcast is still going with the "isolated malicious act" theory when last we checked.

The FCC would not have jurisdiction over a cable company's isolated-malicious-act public-relations disaster, or even snafu. It has the ability to fine broadcast TV stations for over-the-air violations of this and that.

FCC spokesman David Fiske tells the TV Column that the agency will, "under our routine procedures," review the complaints received "to determine whether or not the alleged information is sufficient to suggest that a violation of the obscenity, profanity or indecency prohibition has occurred."

But, a press report that the FCC is investigating Super Bowl Porn beyond this initial review of a complaint is inaccurate, he added.

The press report he's alluding to is on E! Entertainment channel's Web site, under the headline "Feds Planning Super Bowl Porn Probe."

E!, I'm sure you know, is owned by . . . Comcast. I know -- small world, isn't it?

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