Networks might not sacrifice whole days to Clinton trial


As far as the broadcast networks are concerned, the impeachment trial beginning today is hardly must-see TV.

Although ABC, CBS and NBC are all planning to cover today's opening salvos, in which the House GOP prosecutors will begin laying out their case against President Clinton, none are committing themselves to broadcasting the entire day's events.

And no one is willing to speculate what happens beyond tomorrow.

"We're a news organization, so we sort of take things as they come," CBS News spokeswoman Kim Akhtar says. "We just don't know how long we're going to stick with it. Everything is being taken on a day-by-day basis."

The three networks all plan to begin their coverage at 1 p.m., when House prosecutors are scheduled to take the floor. ABC and NBC will continue offering live feeds to their affiliates throughout the day but will also provide regular programming for local stations that decide enough is enough. Officials at both WBAL, Channel 11 (NBC), and WMAR, Channel 2 (ABC) say they'll wait until tomorrow to decide how long to stick with the trial.

The plans for off-and-on coverage contrast starkly with the Watergate hearings of 1973-74, which were broadcast live and unedited. The three networks rotated much of the coverage on a daily basis, with one network airing the proceedings each day.

Of course, cable wasn't much of an option in 1974. Today, five cable operations -- CNN, Court TV, Fox News, C-SPAN2 and MSNBC -- promise gavel-to-gavel coverage.

But the networks' decision also reflects what is perceived as an increasing lack of interest in the impeachment process.

"All we can do is point to the previous special reports that we've done over the course of the months, and I would say there's been moderate interest, moderate to low," says NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley. "If there were huge demands for it, we would have to look a lot more closely at how many hours we provide."

A few developments to watch once the cameras start rolling: Will ABC News, which took some hits when its coverage of the House impeachment process was so weak that some affiliates (including WMAR) opted to air CNN's feed, continue the strong rebound it began during last week's Senate swearing-in ceremony? ABC was on the air first and off the air last, and its commentators -- particularly Cokie Roberts, whose perspective benefited from having parents who both served in the House -- seemed on top of their game.

For the best perspective, the broadcast to watch may be CNN's, whose commentators include former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, vice-chair of the Watergate hearings.

For a taste of controversy, try Court TV, where the coverage will include interviews with U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Although the New Jersey Democrat will be acting as a de facto juror, Court TV insists his commentary will not be an assessment of the case itself. Instead, the senator will be talking about his "views as a citizen," promises Court TV spokeswoman Frederika Brookfield. It should be interesting to see where exactly the line between citizen and senator falls.

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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