Broadcast Networks Opt Out Of The Presidential Speech Business

When the broadcast networks chose not to air President Obama’s immigration speech, they were just acknowledging what everybody else already knows: Speeches like this are available to watch in a thousand other places, so why should a broadcast network feel obligated to preempt its entertainment shows for such a thing?

The Big Four felt no such obligation to disrupt their Thursday night schedules, even though the President’s relatively brief address would delay the start of prime time for just 15 minutes. The speech was scheduled to start at 8 p.m. Eastern and end at 8:15, and the President politely kept to that time frame, give or take a minute or two.

The disruption might have lasted even longer -- perhaps all the way ’til 8:30, heaven forbid -- if the broadcast networks had followed the speech with a wrap-up segment in which various experts would have been seen explaining the ramifications of the speech to us dummies at home. That would likely have been the case if the networks had bothered to air the speech.



In case you haven't noticed, the broadcast networks have been ceding this kind of event to the cable news channels for a decade, or maybe longer. And now, with a speech like this one streaming all over the Internet, it seems more pointless than ever for a broadcast network to preempt its programming for a presidential speech except in the event of a dire emergency.  

Most of these things -- last night’s executive order on immigration reform being a case in point -- do not represent national emergencies. But they get covered that way on the cable news channels. While the broadcast networks greet the White House’s request for airtime with yawns, for the news channels, a presidential speech like this one coming right at the onset of their prime-time talk shows is like winning the lottery.

Suddenly, there’s this story containing not just one but several very divisive issues that gets tossed in their laps just when they need it most. As a result, a 15-minute speech subsequently turns into three hours of blather that you can sum up in a phrase or two: MSNBC is for it, Fox is against it, and CNN works both sides of it (or something like that).

Long ago, I formed the habit of tuning into C-Span for presidential speeches because, except for entertaining some viewer phone calls directly following the event, C-Span doesn’t treat every government event it covers as either Armageddon or entertainment. And I don’t find news-channel blather to be particularly entertaining anymore. Most of the commentators the news channels book for these discussions are no more informed on these issues than you or I. They rarely have anything to say that’s reliable, constructive, informative or illuminating, so what's the point?

One of the byproducts of the networks’ decision to pass on the President’s speech Thursday night was the decision by some network affiliates to carry the speech anyway. Local news directors and station managers in some cities decided to air the speech because of the immigrant communities they serve, according to this story on

It was refreshing to hear of these local stations making a decision that put their local communities first, and the needs of their networks second. Now more than ever, local broadcast stations need to maintain their positions as indispensable members of their communities. Local news happens to be where TV stations build their reputations and earn the lion’s share of their money. Once in a while, it’s OK for them to seize an opportunity such as this one to reinforce their positions in their markets as providers of news and information that is vitally important to the people who live there.

As for the broadcast networks, they are still very much in the news business, but unlike their affiliates, the networks don’t depend on their news programming for revenue to quite the same extent as their affiliates do. That’s what prime-time entertainment shows are for -- the very entertainment shows the networks decided not to pre-empt or delay on Thursday night.


7 comments about "Broadcast Networks Opt Out Of The Presidential Speech Business ".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, November 21, 2014 at 2:38 p.m.

    Years ago, when broadcast was the ONLY way to view these speeches, it bothered me that PBS skipped them. I wondered why PBS shouldn't be required to carry them so that the commercials channels could proceed with what normal people wanted to watch. Of course, it had to do with news value, although I recall a Nixon address about Boy Scouts that took a 15-minute chunk out of primetime in 1974.

  2. kirk gaw from oneone77 agency, November 21, 2014 at 2:59 p.m.

    I think removing a White House broadcast from the President on Network TV is wrong and undeserving to the growing Youth of our country! It teaches the young not to take the Union and the Office of the Presidency "not seriously"! Let's continue to encourage LIVE Broadcasts from the White House on Network TV, and encourage continuing National Unity!

  3. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, November 21, 2014 at 3:42 p.m.

    ADAM: PBS is a fifth national broadcast network and did, in fact, cover the speech and more through the PBS NewsHour Team. Unfortunately, their coverage was not long enough and never is.
    DOUGLAS: Your comments sound distressingly condescending. How do you know that "normal people" want entertainment and not news? Are you Nietzsche' Superman - and not normal?
    KIRK: Networks should do what is good for goodness sake. The dream of national unity will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. However, poor TV programming decisions like these teach Youth the wrong lesson about Media Responsibility and the Public Interest. One has to wonder if bad media decisions contribute to pathetic, if not shameful, voter turnout during Election Season. Thank you, Kirk, for uplifting points. Peace, Nicholas P. Schiavone
    Onwards & upwards!

  4. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, November 21, 2014 at 5:37 p.m.

    Adam: Your article left out a few critical facts about what the Broadcast Networks did and didn't do last night, Thursday, November 20. In addition to overlooking the broadcast network coverage by the PBS NewsHour at 8 PM ET, you also failed to reflect the interests of another "minority" audience: Spanish-speaking Americans. Just read TVNEWSER or talk to Nielsen:

    Obama Immigration Remarks Draw 6.8M on Spanish-Language TV
    By Chris Ariens on November 21, 2014 3:15 PM

    Pres. Obama’s immigration remarks drew 6.85 million viewers on two Spanish-language U.S. TV networks last night, according to Nielsen overnight time-period data.

    With 5.055 million viewers, Univision saw a +49% increase in viewership from Wednesday’s 8pm half hour, while NBCU-owned Telemundo’s 1.8 million viewers was a jump of +38% from the night earlier.

    With a 2.1 rating and a 9 share in the A18-34 demo, Unvision was second only to CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” in the half hour. It was fourth in total viewers, behind CBS, ABC and NBC.

    The broadcast networks chose not to carry network-wide special reports at 8pmET, but that didn’t stop many local stations in big markets from producing their own specials. That alone will dent the national ratings, especially for NBC and ABC. (Final numbers will be released Tuesday.) FOX, too, will see an effect as many stations in big markets carried a Shepard Smith-anchored report" (from the FOX News Networks).

    Another interesting note for Univision, following the president’s remarks, anchor Jorge Ramos wrapped up the news at 8:18pm. At that point the network moved on to the Latin Grammy Awards broadcast. The 8:30pm half hour actually lost viewers: from an average of 5.055 million to an average of 4.799 million. The younger demos (18-49 and 18-34) also each dropped one tenth of a ratings point from 8 to 8:30pm.

    8pm |
    Program: Viewers (Millions) / A18-49 / A18-34
    The Big Bang Theory (CBS)….14.647 / 4.0 / 2.6
    Informe Especial (Univision)……5.055 / 2.2 / 2.1
    Grey’s Anatomy (ABC)………….8.242 / 2.3 / 1.8
    Bones (FOX)……………………..5.001 / 1.3 / 0.9
    The Vampire Diaries (CW)……..1.721 / 0.8 / 0.8
    The Biggest Loser (NBC)………5.324 / 1.3 / 0.7
    Accion Ejecutiva (Telemundo)…1.800 / 0.7 / 0.5

  5. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, November 21, 2014 at 5:49 p.m.

    Dear Adam & MediaPost:
    Given all the facts that were not at your disposal when you wrote your article, I would consider preparing a new, complete, and comprehensive article -- and not just an edit to correct your factual errors of commission and omission. Sincerely, Nicholas P Schiavone - The national viewers of PBS and the Hispanic Networks await your thoughtful and responsible response.

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 21, 2014 at 7:18 p.m.

    The networks have more fear of being wrong that getting it right. All the programs moving back a half hour wouldn't collapse their numbers as much as they think they would and therefore not devalue their spots. Wonder how much backroom dickering was done with other super powers.

  7. Leonard Willis from Thee Creative Agency, December 3, 2014 at 6:06 p.m.

    This is good news for optional media sources .

    Global Mobile Television offers all the perks traditional networks and MORE!!! Mobile Television is "The Now Audience" Socially engaged and Active - NOT Passive.

    I am sure mobile networks are gearing up to bail out the Politicians and Provide them that much needed spot light with social media ESO engagement all in one package and to a LIVE and Active Audience ready to listen and engage the VOTE!


    This show has completed it's first season launched on Mobile Televisions to Smart Phones,Pads and Mobile Devices World Wide. Host Amaris Soph'e Adara Takes her show. Gurl Talk with Amaris, Season #2 "POLITICAL" with NO Sugar Coating Allowed. "What Do Ya Say About Good Timing"

    Leonardo Willis

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