Broadcast news networks have expressed frustration over Barack Obama's decision to deliver a prime-time address on health care to both chambers of Congress next Wednesday. Not only do stations have to shuffle their regular programming to accommodate the president; they lose millions in advertising revenue. Why do the networks cover presidential addresses at all?
It's a tradition as well as a public service. The major networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC—aren't required to cover a major presidential address or news conference. But they usually do. If the White House specifically asks for time for a State of the Union address or for a speech from the Oval Office, networks will pretty much always grant it. Otherwise, the networks tend to cover prime-time presidential speeches that are especially newsworthy—for example, one that promises a new stance on health care reform. If the president were holding an East Room press conference and made no specific request for airtime, the networks would use their judgment about whether news will be generated. They aren't likely to bump regular programming for live coverage of a run-of-the-mill political speech.
It's part of a network's mandate to cover presidential addresses and other news. The airwaves belong to the public, so in order to obtain a broadcast license from the Federal Communications Commission, a network must prove that it will serve the public good. That means, for example, pledging to devote at least three hours of its weekly schedule to children's educational programming, covering weather emergencies, and broadcasting AMBER Alerts when a child has been kidnapped. Local TV affiliates keep logs of all their public service programming, which they can show to the FCC when their licenses come up for renewal. Some broadcasters even have advisory boards composed of community members to keep tabs on the needs and desires of their audiences. If a network or one of its affiliates decided not to broadcast a presidential address, it probably wouldn't lose its license. But it would be seen by some—especially consumer advocates—as shirking responsibility. Of course, now that most Americans have access to cable news and the Internet, it's less important for every network to carry the president's speech than it was, say, in the 1970s.
How much do networks lose every time they broadcast a president's speech? Millions. Fox decided not to cover Obama's East Room news conference in April after estimating that it lost $6 million in ad revenue in February when it moved American Idol to accommodate a similar event. Executives at the top four broadcast networks estimated in June that Obama's first three press conferences cost them a total of $30 million. At the same time, it can be extremely profitable not to broadcast a speech when other networks do. The premiere of The Newlywed Game drew a massive audience in 1966 when ABC decided to run it during Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's Vietnam testimony.
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Explainer thanks Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute.