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Networks Want Only Bits of Impeachment Hearings

Television: They provided live coverage of Watergate hearings but don't have similar plans for Clinton inquiry.

October 17, 1998|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Millions of Americans turned to the major broadcast networks in 1973 to see Watergate hearings that exposed the "dirty tricks" and secret tape-recordings of the White House and made folk heroes out of Sen. Sam Ervin and other participants. The country was riveted again in 1974 as the House Judiciary Committee debated whether to recommend the impeachment of then-President Richard Nixon.

ABC, CBS and NBC alternated carrying the hearings live, with one of the three networks preempting its daytime schedule each day to televise hours of testimony and debate. PBS also carried the hearings live every day, helping to launch PBS' "NewsHour" by teaming Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil to anchor the coverage.

Twenty-five years later, after the Nov. 3 elections, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to begin an impeachment inquiry into allegations that President Clinton committed perjury about his relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. In a sign of how the television landscape has changed, executives at the three major broadcast networks say they expect to carry only portions of the proceedings live, leaving full coverage to the all-news cable channels.

"We're still waiting for details on the hearings, but my guess is that MSNBC [NBC's cable news channel] will do gavel-to-gavel coverage, and NBC will carry key testimony live," NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley said in an interview. "You have to remember that this is not 1974 in terms of TV news--there wasn't even a C-SPAN then."

Lane Venardos, executive producer of special events coverage for CBS News, said he expects that his network will "pick and choose" among the testimony during the day, providing some live coverage, with extensive coverage on the "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" and, possibly, some nighttime specials in the event of major news.

"We don't know yet how long the hearings will last or what the witness list will be," Venardos said. But, like other broadcast executives, he said that any testimony by Lewinsky would almost certainly be carried live.

ABC executives said they need more details about the hearings before they can discuss their coverage plans.

The "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" has proposed producing live daytime coverage of the hearings for PBS. But public television sources say PBS stations were polled recently on the subject and showed little appetite for preempting their daytime block of children's programming.

Lester Crystal, executive producer of "NewsHour," said he hopes that stations will approve the idea.

"We're in discussions with PBS, and we'd like to provide daily coverage," Crystal said, adding that "NewsHour" will provide extensive excerpts and analysis of the hearings on its regular telecasts.

Executives at both CNN and Fox News Channel said they plan to carry the hearings live and essentially gavel-to-gavel during the day.

"Our precise plans aren't set yet, but we're certainly going to be providing extensive live coverage," said Frank Sesno, CNN's Washington bureau chief.

When ABC, CBS and NBC aired all four hours of Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony on Sept. 21, it cost each an estimated $1 million in revenue, executives said. The cable networks, in contrast, have seen their ratings jump with sensational developments in the Lewinsky story, although in recent weeks, several polls have found the public saying they're weary of the scandal and opposed to the impeachment of Clinton.

"The combined weight of coverage may have contributed to the public's weariness," Sesno said, "but it hasn't been the lead story on CNN every day. . . . We'll continue to cover other news during the hearings, and we would certainly break away for another important story. It's possible that the public may tune out some of the coverage of the hearings, but this is an important event."

Still, Fox News Channel Vice President John Moody acknowledged, the Clinton-Lewinsky matter allows journalists to have it both ways: "This story is about sex and it's about the fate of a presidency."

Apart from economic considerations and changes in TV, CBS' Venardos said, there are differences between the hearings 25 years ago and the upcoming House inquiry that may affect coverage.

"During the Watergate hearings, a lot was revealed that wasn't known before," Venardos said. "With the Lewinsky story, you have loads of material that has been reported on extensively. Of course, it will be very interesting to see what kind of cross-examination the committee will do."

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