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NBC’s Titanic Mistake
It wasn’t Heidi this time.

Op-ed by Tim Graham, director of media analysis, MRC,
as printed in the November 30, 2000 edition of National Review Online

By Tim Graham

On November 17, 1968, NBC made an enormous programming boo-boo. In the very old days of the American Football League, the New York Jets had gone ahead of the Oakland Raiders, 32-29, with 1:05 left in the game. NBC's entertainment geniuses then pre-empted the game's end to broadcast their television movie of Heidi. Unfortunately, the Raiders scored twice in a dramatic comeback. The network took so many hostile phone calls that they publicly apologized, and cemented the growing national appetite for pro football. 

That should be a historical molehill to Sunday night, when NBC's latest geniuses buried the Bush presidency at sea with the network premiere of Titanic. A lot more than the anger of kielbasa-tossing Jets and Raiders fans was at stake. The certification of the Florida result and the emerging president-elect's address to the nation were both ignored, since the Hollywood gang was so smart to shell out millions of dollars to air a movie that's been seen by most of America about six times. The Peacock Network's ratings sank as if Bryant Gumbel were still there: ABC's regular Sunday line-up pasted NBC, even as ABC put Peter Jennings on to disparage the breaking news as not really news: "This is certainly not over." 

NBC brass could take the same approach the news people took about calling Florida for Gore, and say it was all about ratings, and raging competitive juices, and paying a fortune for movie rights, and had nothing to do with refusing to concede the election any sooner that Al Gore does. They could say it was romance for Leonardo DiCaprio, not Al Gore, that won the day. But this shocking omission inevitably sends the public a strong signal that NBC did not find these events newsworthy. Every self-important media critic of any ideology who fusses over how private commercial networks are putting profit before the public interest should join in condemning NBC's preference for fictionalized history over real history. 

NBC might not look so biased to the left if it also ignored Al Gore public events. But NBC broadcast two hours of arguments before the Florida supreme court. Worse yet, NBC broadcast Al Gore's remarks in their entirety on Monday night (preceded by a snippet of Bush's Sunday speech.) Then on Tuesday, when Gore returned to the cameras for another stab at reversing his declining poll numbers, NBC broke in again for live coverage. On Wednesday, he received a Today show interview from one of his greatest television sympathizers, the doe-eyed Gore fan Claire Shipman, who asked tough questions, such as, "Tell us a little bit about this kind of presidential limbo that you're in. What that's like. You've worked so hard to be president and this must feel like some kind of divine torture. What is it like everyday?" And she felt his pain: "How does it feel to be called a sore loser?" 

(Granted, Shipman may not surpass her MSNBC colleague Ashleigh Banfield, who tingled on Monday afternoon as Gore and Lieberman prepared to talk by speakerphone with Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt as the two congressional leaders hung out in Tallahassee. "The last time I was this excited about a two-minute warning for a telephone call was when I was waiting for my prom date to call and invite me to the prom — and I'm not going to tell you how many years ago that was.") 

How will NBC go on from here? Will every live appearance by President Bush the Sequel go ignored? Will cabinet picks lose to Days of Our Lives? Will NBC's Saturday teen-comedy lineup trump the inauguration? Will the State of the Union now be dumped in favor of the fake White House of The West Wing? If the news division has any pride or any power within the bureaucracy, NBC News ought to insist that they have the right to trample on Leonardo's transformation into a sinking ice cube if historical events happen at the wrong time. 

National Review Online | Back to Op-Ed Archives



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