President Dick Cheney talks with host Jay Leno on "The Tonight
Show With Jay Leno" Feb. 19, 2002 in Burbank, Ca. photo
by Paul Drinkwater/NBC/Getty Images
Below: First Lady Laura Bush appears on the Oprah Sept. 2001 in
Chicago. photo courtesy Harpo Productions/Getty Images
Bored with the
scripted nature of traditional news programs,
viewers have turned to talk shows and late-night for information.
by Sean H. Smith
One of the Slightly-Less-Big Stories of recent times was the stir created
by ABC's pursuit of David Letterman, whose move to the Disney-owned
network would have ended Nightline's 22-year run in the 11:30 p.m.
time slot. It didn't happen, but the possibility that a late-night
comedian could oust one of the most respected news programs in the history
of television sent shock waves through the country's media establishment.
ABC insisted its pursuit of Letterman was about attracting the younger
viewers advertisers covet, but the controversy shed light on an ironic
development: Letterman, Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, Oprah Winfrey, Saturday
Night Live and MTV have arrived as deliverers of the news that mainstream
Americans want. A study conducted at the height of the 2000 campaign
by the Pew Research Center revealed that over half of Americans were
getting information about the candidates from these shows.
And no wonder. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs,
a research group funded by groups including the MacArthur, Ford and
Pew foundations, the average sound bite in the 2000 election fell to
a mere seven seconds, three seconds shorter than 1988. In an average
evening news piece after Labor Day, reporters took 74 percent of spoken
airtime while the candidate had only 11 percent. Other sources had the
remaining 15 percent.
By contrast, the pop culture shows offered viewers a chance to actually
see and hear the candidates. When Bush went on Letterman in October
of 2000, he had thirteen minutes of airtime. That's more time than
he received on all the network news programs combined for the same month.
Pop programs are giving viewers more of what they want. During the
last election, when Oprah announced she would be having Gore and Bush
on her show, she told her audience her intention was to break through
the "wall" of sound bites and "practiced answers"
to reveal the real men. "What we hope is that at the end of these
two shows, you'll be able to answer for yourself some of the bigger
questions, like who do you trust? Who feels right for you? Who do you
When sizing up potential presidents or the current administration,
these exchanges are far more important to the average American than
listening to politicians repeat their scripted statements on taxes or
prescription drugs to Ted Koppel or Tim Russert.
It seems September 11 actually gave more political power to pop TV.
As these shows grappled with how to conduct themselves after the attacks,
they turned to news personalities and political figures: The Daily Show
with Jon Stewart has hosted the likes of Thomas Friedman. Letterman
gave John Ashcroft more than 20 minutes of airtime. Hounding Ashcroft
to sing was the closest Letterman came to a "gotcha" moment.
Another politicians who made the late-night rounds was New York Mayor
Rudolph Guiliani. In an effort to urge Americans back to normalcy, he
chose two New York mainstays - Letterman and Saturday Night Live.
Guiliani, whose response to the crisis has garnered comparisons to Winston
Churchill, was no stranger to either show. He appeared on Letterman
more than twenty times during his eight years as mayor and even hosted
Saturday Night Live.
His appearances in the wake of the terrorist attacks were a testament
to the political constitution of these shows. When you want to send
a signal to the American people - even a serious message at a time
when their lives have been shattered - you have to go to where
the people actually are.
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