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Networks Choose Sweeps Push Over Bush Address

NEW YORK (Variety) - TV newsies may feel pressure to rally around the flag, but that didn't stop them from skipping President Bush's speech Thursday night.

After waiting until the last minute on Thursday to decide whether to air the president's address to the nation, the broadcast networks largely decided to stick with regular programming.

ABC was the only broadcast network to air the speech live. Cable nets CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNBC also broadcast Bush's address.

Industry insiders said it was a difficult decision to make, since the networks are wary of appearing unpatriotic, but they are reluctant to preempt their primetime schedule during sweeps, a key ratings period when ad prices are set.

Instead of the president's speech, CBS aired "Survivor: Africa,'' while NBC aired "Friends.'' If White House officials wanted to get a message to the nation, they shouldn't have scheduled President Bush's speech during sweeps, joked some newsies.

A White House spokeswoman confirmed that her boss did not officially ask the networks to carry the speech, saying it was up to them. She said there were no bad feelings regarding who carried it and who didn't.

"Based on what we've been told about the content of the speech, we'll cover it as a news event and not as live programming,'' said a CBS News spokeswoman, who added that the speech was Webcast live at CBS.com and covered on the West Coast version of the "CBS Evening News.''

An NBC News spokeswoman said, "Given that the White House did not request time on the network, we thought it was sufficient to cover the event on our cable networks.''

ABC, which preempted an episode of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?,'' said the decision was a no-brainer.

"It's a speech by the president of the United States while our country is at war on an issue that is of vital concern to Americans right now -- our homeland security,'' an ABC News spokesman said.

Cynics sniped that it was easier for ABC to cut into "Whose Line Is It Anyway?'' since it is not nearly as popular as ''Survivor'' or "Friends''; however, a decision to preempt primetime programming is still one that will cost the network millions of dollars in lost revenue.

This season, "Whose Line Is It Anyway?'' has averaged 6.1 million viewers, compared with 20.7 million for "Survivor'' and 28.1 million for "Friends,'' according to Nielsen numbers.

As Thursday's dilemma illustrates, TV newsies increasingly are feeling pressure to prove their patriotism.

"In these times, there's a patriotism patrol,'' CNN News Group chairman-CEO Walter Isaacson said Wednesday at a panel discussion hosted by the Libel Defense Resource Center in Gotham. "If you get on the wrong side of public opinion by seeming not to be patriotic enough, you can get in trouble these days.''

As an example, Isaacson pointed to ABC News president David Westin, who was criticized after he told a roomful of Columbia University journalism students that he had no opinion on whether the Pentagon could be considered a legitimate enemy target. Westin later apologized.

ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer agreed: "You have to think about what you're saying, since you're operating in an arena of inflamed feelings.''

Both Isaacson and Sawyer -- along with fellow panelists Ben Bradlee, VP at large of the Washington Post, and "60 Minutes'' creator Don Hewitt -- said holding back information may be appropriate if doing so is in the national interest.

"We have an extra consideration. We realize it,'' Sawyer said.

Just as newsies say they are willing to work with Washington as the war on terrorism continues, so is Hollywood.

On Sunday, White House special assistant Karl Rove will meet with top entertainment execs in Los Angeles to discuss ways Hollywood may contribute in winning over the hearts and minds of overseas audiences, particularly viewers in the Middle East.

"The White House will share with the entertainment community the themes that are being communicated here and abroad -- tolerance, courage, patriotism -- and during the meeting participants are likely going to discuss any future actions that could be undertaken by the entertainment industry,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said at a briefing Thursday.

"The White House has great respect for the creativity of the industry and recognizes its ability to educate,'' Fleischer said.

By Paula Bernstein

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