On July 22, 2009, President Obama held one of the most boring news conferences in the history of televised presidential events. For nearly 50 minutes, he blathered on about private and public health care plans, red pills and blue pills, costs and benefits. In the last five minutes of the conference, he made his controversial comments about Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Mass., police department -- but by that time, everyone watching was either drifting into sleep or totally comatose.
So why did ABC, NBC, and CBS broadcast this atrocious, narcolepsy-inducing ode to arrogance in the midst of prime time?
It turns out that President Obama and his hatchet man, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, are not averse to using their bully tactics on political allies as well as political enemies. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post reports that when networks began fussing over broadcasting yet another Obama snoozefest, Emanuel called not the programming chiefs, but the heads of parent companies in an effort to pressure networks to greenlight his boss’s show. According to Kurtz, Emanuel buzzed Les Moonves, chief executive of CBS, Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, which owns NBC, and Bob Iger, chief executive of Disney, which owns ABC.
Any normal high-urgency presidential programming request would go through Nancy Tellem at CBS, Jeff Zucker at NBC, and Anne Sweeney at ABC. Tellem and Zucker happen to be personal donors to the Obama 2008 campaign. In 2000, Zucker seriously considered joining Al Gore’s presidential team -- Gore reportedly offered Zucker the press secretary position in his White House. These executives are friendly to the current administration. Still, that didn’t stop Emanuel from going over their heads.
There’s a reason Emanuel went over the heads of the programming execs: the programming execs recognize that each time Obama rips out the heart of a weekday primetime lineup, he costs them revenue. Hollywood is a liberal town, and there’s a general Obama worship there. But that doesn’t mean the executives are blind to basic economic facts; they recognize that if they continue to air Obama third-grade school secretary ad hoc press conferences, they will get killed in the ratings. And if they get killed in the ratings, advertisers won’t care whether they’re chummy with the president or not.