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The Plausible Marketability Of Ollie North


The real Lt. Col. Oliver L. North has sold well in daytime just as a depiction of his life may eventually sell in prime time.

Talk is rampant about North's seemingly glittering prospects in books, movies and especially entertainment TV as a result of his charismatic testimony before select congressional committees probing the Iran- contra affair. With any luck, he could be our next big superstar.

North's ultimate marketability rests on the outcome of the Iran-contra issue. Yet his daytime ratings--covering his six emotional days before the Iran-contra panel that were carried live by ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and CNN--have done nothing to diminish his commercial appeal.

You would expect even such widely reported congressional hearings as these to be a ratings flop, by TV standards. Yet North's testimony, which ended Tuesday, seems to have lured viewers to the set in numbers generally comparable to audiences for the usual daytime collection of morning programs, game shows and soap operas.

"The Young and the Restless," move over. The young and restless Ollie North is a draw.

Exactly how much of a draw remains to be seen. As always when the subject is ratings, what the networks know and when they knew it remains unclear.

That's because audience figures cited by the networks differ in detail as much as do the testimonies of figures in the Iran-contra affair.

Beyond dispute, though, is ABC's ratings dominance in the daytime Olliestakes, with Peter Jennings and the gang from "World News Tonight" topping Tom Brokaw-led NBC coverage and Dan Rather-anchored CBS. That's not surprising, in view of ABC's traditional strong showing in daytime.

Hence, ratings for daytime network news coverage are not automatically applicable to regular evening news ratings, where "NBC Nightly News" is the clear ratings leader. Different audience, different habits, different tastes.

Same interest in North, though.

When it comes to details, the picture is foggier. For example, NBC cites a preliminary 15-market A.C. Nielsen Co. survey for the six-day North testimony (approximately six hours daily) as showing ABC leading with a 6.2 rating and 24% audience share, compared with 4.6 and 15% for NBC and 4.2 and 14% for CBS (the 15 markets represent 37% of the national viewing audience, and each rating point equals 320,000 households).

NBC's overall figures don't differ greatly from those cited by ABC. The conflict comes in comparing the North ratings with those for regular daytime programming in a typical four-week period preceding North's testimony when the networks did not cover the hearings live.

NBC maintains that its daytime ratings rose 15% and CBS' 8% during the North period, compared with a 6% slide by ABC. But ABC insists that all three networks lost daytime viewers during the North period, although not significantly.

And on it goes, with CBS on Wednesday citing ratings that didn't include Tuesday, moreover based on a sample of only 14 markets.

Both PBS and CNN have provided live coverage of the hearings since their inception, and will continue to do so even after ABC, CBS and NBC begin alternating live coverage today.

PBS could not provide any extended national ratings for its North coverage. But KCET in Los Angeles can thank North for making last week the highest Nielsen-rating week in the station's history. Although North's 6-9 a.m. ratings eventually dropped well below average audience totals for "Sesame Street" in that time period, his ratings for the 11 a.m.-2 p.m. time period swiftly skyrocketed to a level triple that of KCET's usual programming.

That is so despite North's testimony also being available live on local network stations and CNN.

Meanwhile, CNN--based on a different Nielsen sample for only the first five days of North's testimony--said North's ratings were higher than those for the all-news network's regular programming. North's first day of testimony also gave CNN ratings higher than those for its previous peak for the hearings, the first day of testimony by North's former secretary, Fawn Hall.

In other local Nielsen ratings (reported by KNBC Channel 4), North averaged a 20% audience share in the 6-9 a.m. period on KABC-TV Channel 7, followed by 19% on KCBS-TV Channel 2 (compared with the station's usual small audience for "The CBS Morning Program" during a portion of that period) and 17% for KNBC.

Channel 7 was also tops from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., followed by Channel 4 and then Channel 2.

Not that ratings translate into dollars in this case.

PBS is always non-commercial. In varying degrees, however, the big three commercial networks and CNN also did not sell commercial time during most of North's testimony.

So North cost them money, despite the savings of covering his testimony with a pool feed.

ABC said it lost $800,000-$900,000 in daily revenue during its North coverage. NBC said it lost $500,000 daily. CBS losses roughly equaled NBC's, according to trade accounts. CNN reported total revenue losses of $500,000.

Their loss, another's gain.

What does all of this bode for the future of the man some regard as scary and others as a national hero? The presidency of a large corporation? A three-picture deal in Hollywood? A swanky job hosting a hit game show? Ollie North . . .

Come on down!

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