"As we approach the seventh millennium of time, the human race will at last find peace," declared President "Adar" on the premiere of ABC's space epic "Battlestar Galactica." Hostilities immediately ensued, but they were interrupted at 10:30 Eastern time - just as the Cylon warships were closing in - by the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter.
"We're privileged to witness tonight a significant achievement in the cause of peace," said Carter from the East Room of the White House. And because he was saying it in a particularly prime moment of prime time on the biggest viewing night of the week, it is possible that as many as 100 million Americans were watching him in their homes.
Yesterday, as the euphoria over the "framework for peace" agreements signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was seasoned with notes of realistic skepticism, one particularly obvious question arose. Was the signing as big a triumph for world peace as the national telecast was a triumph for the battle-scarred public popularity of President Carter?
Had White House image-maker Gerald Rafshoon scored his greatest media coup yet - by getting all three networks to carry Carter's Peace Revue at a time when it would get him maximum exposure to the nation?
Sunday is traditionally the night when more Americans are watching television that on any other. NBC Research estimates that 62.7 percent of all U.S. television sets were turned on during prime time Sunday, and that the total number of viewers could range between 90 and 100 million.
It was also the most heatedly competitive night of the new fall TV season. ABC was showing its much ballyhooed, $3 million "Galactica" premiere, CBS had the live Emmy Awards from Pasadena, and Nic aired the concluding half of the first TV showing of "King Kong."
If Carter, Sadat and Begin had come on the air a couple of hours earlier, their ratings may not have been so sensational, but by 10:30, viewers were bound to be hooked by one of the three splashy network offerings, and "overnight" figures show that they remained in front of their sets for the White House show.
The glad tidings of peace came on just as King Kong was fording the East River looking for his girl friend, as the dread Cylons were closing in [LINE ILLEGIBLE] Alda was about to hand out the evening's umpteenth Emmy Award.
Yesterday White House sources insisted, though privately and not for the record, that the timing of the Carter announcement was actually dictated by the events at Camp David and not by the shrewd media strategy of Rafshoon, who did not respond to inquiries.
One veteran broadcast journalist, however, said it was "obvious" that the telecast was timed for maximum TV exposure and that even the Sunday deadline set by Carter for conclusion of the negotiations may have been part of the campaign to bolster his image through TV.
But NBC News bureau chief Sid Davis, chairman of network pool coverage for the event, said, "My judgment is that the White House really didn't know the way this was going until late in the day. When the day started out, it looked like nothing major was going to happen."
At 5 p.m., the White House phoned Davis to ask him to arrange a "possible 9 p.m. broadcast" from the East Room, where public television was just finishing up a live concert by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. At 5:45, as Davis tried to round up crews and equipment for the broadcast, the White House called again and Rafshoon aide Anne Edwards told Davis, "You have until 10:30 now" to put the show on the air.
George Watson, ABC News bureau chief here, said "There really is no way of knowing for a certainty" if the timing of the broadcast was the result of Rafshoon's strategy or the logistics of the negotiations. "Perhaps we were beign jerked around," Watson said. "But I think the White House really was concerned about rampant speculation spreading so they wanted to get out the results of the conference as soon as possible."
Thinking it over, Watson added, "No, I do not think that the end of the summit was orchestrated with 'Galactica' or 'King Kong' in mind."
Ed Fouhy, CBS News bureau chief, expressed a similar sentiment but had at least a glimmer of doubt. "No, I'm sure yesterday (Sunday) was dead honest," Fouhy said. Then: "Well, not dead honest, but fairly honest."
For nearly two solid weeks, network news teams had been standing vigil at Camp David waiting for a break in the story or in the secrecy which surrounded the negotiations. Most network sources conceded yesterday that the reason for the secrecy was partly to avoid the bedlam of "media diplomacy" that marked earlier hopes of a Mideast agreement late last year.
Nevertheless, the three networks dispatched their superstars - Walter Cronkite of CBS, Barbara Walters of ABC and John Chancellor of NBC - to corral Sadat and Begin yesterday and begin an undoubtedly long round of post-negotiation negotiations for TV viewers to see for themselves.
As if to further emphasize the importance of TV exposure in affecting public opinion on Carter's performance as prince of peace negotiations, his address to a joint session of Congress, originally scheduled by the White House for 9 p.m. yesterday, was moved back to 8 p.m. so it would not interfere with the telecast of the Monday night football game.
The three network evening newscasts resembled duplicate news magazine covers last night as they devoted large shares of broadcast time to interviews with Sadat and Begin, who must have had little time to do anything yesterday but be interviewed by networks.CBS and ABC evening newscasts are seen at the same time in Washington and one TV set tuned to each revealed interviews of Anwar and Menachem by Walter and Barbara running almost in unison.
Earlier in the week, Cronkite bowed out of a scheduled appearance on the Emmy Awards because he wanted to stay with the story; thus it was Cronkite himself who appeared on screen when CBS interrupted the Emmy show Sunday night.
"Walter, in our eyes, has been part of the Mideast summit from the very beginning," said Sanford J. Socolow, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News (With Walter Cronkite)". "He would have been god-damned disappointed if it weren't him on the air to report the conclusion."
Paul L. Klein, executive vice president for programming at the NBC Television Network, said yesterday from Burbank he was certain the timing of the Carter telecast was no accident, but also said he didn't see anything wrong with that.
"This is the age of media," said Klein. "You do what you have to do. You try to settle wars, you want to attract attention. I don't see why people try to find anything negative about that."