June 3, 2002







Above: Vice 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

Saturday Night News

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 like?"

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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