Commentary

Bush Interrupts Sweeps Week

Shrewd programming moves got President Bush a plush press conference time slot during the all-important first day of the May sweeps. This seems to suggest White House officials not only know their Social Security, Osama bin Laden, and Iraq issues - but also a thing or two about audience flow and lead out programming.

The press conference was not for any news announcement - just to talk up the Bush Administration's plan to revamp Social Security. The Bush Administration interestingly picked the first night of the sweep period to do this and perhaps the most popular night for TV programming, where shows such as Mark Burnett's "Survivor" runs on CBS and his "Apprentice" show runs on NBC.

The White House gave the networks less than 24-hours notice - it usually gives about a week's notice. It then asked for a weird time, 8:30 Eastern, which suggested there was some negotiating room. Right away this meant three networks, CBS, NBC, and Fox, initially weren't interested - as they air some of their best programming of the week on Thursday.

Of course, this wasn't a problem for ABC, which has no real competitive Thursday night lineup to speak of. Daily Varietycorrectly analyzed this move. Fox is just a bit better - having its popular one-hour drama, "The O.C." running at 8 p.m.

ABC was the first to cave. Then NBC weakened. If it could be moved to 8 p.m. at least it would save "The Apprentice" show at 9 p.m. - figuring the press conference would last less than an hour. In any event, NBC would lose some momentum by pre-empting "Will & Grace" at 8:30 p.m.

The White House said yes - and subsequently had two networks in its camp.

That put pressure on Fox. It didn't want to be left out - and it sacrificed "The O.C." CBS was next to go. It decided it could shift things around as well - moving "Survivor" from 8 to 9 p.m. and "CSI" from 9 to 10 p.m., and cutting out its 10 p.m. "Without a Trace." That set the stage so CBS's best shows of the night went head to head with NBC's "Apprentice" and "ER."

The Bush Administration may have been hoping for at least two networks - instead they got all four. Astute knowledge of the network's likely program scenarios gave this all a chance. No doubt some Bush Administration official must moonlight as a network program scheduler.

Perhaps that man was Bush himself in attempting to shorten his answer to a final question: "I don't want to cut into any of those TV shows that are getting ready to air, for the sake of the economy," he said.

He's not quite right: The networks did lose advertising money last night.

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