Broadcast stations: covering news is a requirement on our public airwaves
Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Wed, 02/11/2009 – 10:47am
The Barack Obama show Monday night was a smash hit. When you combine the eight outlets (4 English broadcast networks, 3 cable news channels, and Spanish-language Univision) that carried the program, there were 49.5 million viewers, more than watched the inauguration. Of the four major English broadcast networks, there was a combined 36.9 million viewers.
And those numbers are even stronger when you consider that a number of people watched the press conference via the Internet.
But before the press conference, the networks were whining about the prospect of blowing off prime time programming for a presidential press conference. After all, George W. Bush didn’t have too many conferences, and they are concerned that Obama’s plans will throw off their schedules.
Normally, February would be a horrible time for the networks to lose prime-time programming since February is a major sweeps month. The Super Bowl, Grammys, and Oscars are just three of the major programs that are specifically designed to air in this sweeps period. After all, the Super Bowl used to be in January and the Oscars were in early April. But this year, due to the planned transition from analog TV to digital TV, the period isn’t as significant as usual.
Let’s look at the networks’ concern: they complained about having to blow off prime-time programs. FOX pulled an episode of “House”; ABC postponed its reality series “True Beauty”; NBC pre-empted “Chuck”; and CBS moved “The Big Bang Theory” in at 9:30 p.m. EST, replacing another comedy, delaying two comedies for a week.
Now, the networks cry that they lost money as a result. But that is a slight exaggeration: those episodes still exist. They can show them later, and somewhere down the road, a rerun might get bumped.
And some shows don’t do well in reruns. As an example, ABC announced it would temporarily remove “Ugly Betty” from the schedule, since reruns of the nighttime serial do quite poorly.
Networks also have little to complain about since they are programming fewer new episodes, especially shows that are actually written by someone. NBC has already announced that it will run five fewer hours a week of scripted programming to produce a rehashed Jay Leno show, essentially duplicating his current show in prime time 5 days a week.
The major reason networks shouldn’t be complaining is that they don’t own the airwaves with which they broadcast their shows: we do. Without us, the taxpayers and citizens of this country, giving them the airwaves, they wouldn’t be able to make boatloads of money.
News, and presidential press conferences fall in this category, qualifies as serving the public good. Networks get the right to make tons of money provided that they serve the public good. In theory, this is why we have a FCC. Though if you’ve tried lately to get a license revoked because a station is not serving the interests of the public, you know it’s virtually impossible.
And even with their harsh criticisms, President Obama’s numbers were actually pretty good: ABC (3.1/8), NBC (3.1/8), CBS (3.0/8), and FOX (2.2/6). (The first number is the rating, the second number the share.)
Let’s be fair to Obama: he ended right around 9 p.m. EST, so networks could go straight to their programming. The networks did a hurried reaction to the press conference because they were frantic to start entertainment programming.
The programs on NBC and FOX airing immediately after the press conference at 9 p.m. EST only did slightly better than the conference itself. In fact, Medium on NBC at 10 p.m. EST drew worse numbers than Obama.
Now, some of those numbers are thrown off since while the press conference aired live across the country, only the Eastern and Central time zones saw the conference in prime time. Prime time for viewers in the West wasn’t affected by the press conference.
Clearly, broadcast networks still have an important role in providing events such as this. Despite the influx of cable news channels and the Internet, 75% of those who watched the press conference Monday night on a television did so on an English over-the-air broadcast station. Even with cable as an option, the networks are the destination.
But there is a solution that might make everyone happy. Networks want to broadcast their shows, people want to watch presidential press conferences on broadcast TV, and citizens want to make sure democracy thrives on public airwaves that they own.
Digital TV allows you to broadcast on at least 4 different signals. So using an example in Chicago, the ABC station could broadcast the reality show “True Beauty” on 7-1, and the Barack Obama presidential press conference on 7-2. Cable companies should be required to carry all secondary digital signals as part of the basic cable package (though most probably do this right now).
If broadcast stations were encouraged, or perhaps even mandated, to utilize more of their airwaves for news and information, while still being able to show their crappy prime time programming, then all tastes are being satisfied.
Right now in Chicago, CBS and FOX don’t air a secondary channel. Perhaps the situation is better in smaller markets, but the broadcast stations would have to step up to pull that off. As far as the network’s profit margin, once they have multiple digital TV channels, running a presidential press conference costs them pennies and provides the people so much.
With analog TV, television stations had this quandary over entertainment vs. news programming. Now with digital TV, they don’t have to make that choice. And we get a choice: news or entertainment. Sounds like a much more democratic way to utilize our public airwaves.