Nets Take a Stand on Prime-time Obama Pre-emptions

By and large, they personally forked out for his campaign, they voted for him, and they know he is capable of boosting TV ratings just by making an appearance.

But executives at the Big Four broadcast networks are seething behind the scenes that President Obama has cost them about $30 million in cumulative ad revenue this year with his three primetime news conference pre-emptions.

Now top network execs quietly are hoping that Fox’s well-publicized rejection of the president’s April 29 presser will serve as precedent for denying future White House requests for prime airtime.

“We will continue to make our decisions on White House requests on a case-by-case basis, but the Fox decision gives us cover to reject a request if we feel that there is no urgent breaking news that is going to be discussed,” said one network exec, who, like all, would not speak for attribution fearing repercussions from the administration.

“If the president wants to make it tough for your network, he can,” the exec added.

Another network executive confided, “Nobody wants to take on the White House, so we’ll have to tiptoe through this.”

Although Obama’s post-election visits to NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and CBS’ “60 Minutes” served as major ratings boosts, the love affair between the networks and the Democrat darling actually might be cooling: There are too many demands, and too much money is at stake.

Even more irksome, the White House is bailing out bankers, insurers and carmakers, but nary a nickel has gone to the struggling media industry.

The White House declined comment, but Kevin Sullivan, a former communications director for President George W. Bush, said he gets Obama’s strategy.

“He couldn’t reach that size audience at any other time of the day,” said Sullivan, who once handled corporate communications at NBC Universal. “Even though the number of viewers declined a lot from the first to the third conference, 28 million people is still a massive audience to reach with a message.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time broadcasters and a president have been at odds. Ronald Reagan’s attempts to script and control the media during his televised news conferences drew headlines in the ’80s, particularly because he conducted more primetime events than any president before him.

But his successors, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, relied less on primetime addresses, choosing to hold them in the daytime, thus lessening the financial impact on the networks.

The Obama conferences have been disruptive to all network schedules. Fox was particularly upset because the president’s second news conference in February forced it to bump ratings champ “American Idol.” The network lost as much as $6 million in ad revenue on that night alone.

Like many businesses, broadcasters are having to cut costs and lay off staffers. Said another broadcast exec, “The millions of ad dollars the president is costing us could help us keep some of those people working.”

The nets are wondering why the president can’t hold conferences at earlier times in the night, either from 7-8 or during the evening news telecasts.

Under the terms of the deals between broadcast networks and media buyers, if a show in which dollars are allocated is either canceled or replaced for the night, ad buyers have the right to ask for cash back. Buyers often choose to reallocate those dollars, but it can be difficult to plant ads in the same or comparable shows.

“Advertisers would always rather run in the shows where they were originally scheduled,” said Ed Gentner, senior vp national broadcast at media agency MediaVest. “If they can’t, they’ll usually look for make-goods first. It’s easier for the larger advertisers with more units to reallocate to get make-goods to reach their target audiences than for smaller advertisers who may only have a few units in specific shows.”

Recommended articles