D.C. soap hits primetime

Clinton confession sets nets on mission

NEW YORK — Admitting in a nationally televised speech to inappropriate behavior, President Clinton Monday night stated firmly that “It is time — in fact, it is past time — to move on.” But the broadcasters and cablers were not ready to drop the matter so quickly.

The President’s Monday night mea culpa was across the dial on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, Telemundo, Univision, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel, Court TV, C-Span, and numerous Fox, WB and UPN affils and local indie stations, with many of them following up with instant analysis and recaps.

The President’s brief speech, starting at 10 p.m. EST, caused broadcast execs to scramble. CBS bumped a live airing of the Miss Teen USA pageant, shifting it to tonight via tape-delay. With a “Monday Night Football” matchup skedded to air 8-11 p.m. EST, ABC chose to cut away at around 10 p.m., temporarily shifting the game to sister cabler ESPN2. ABC returned to the game at about 10:25.

NBC scrapped sitcom repeats at 9 p.m. for an expanded version of “Dateline,” which incorporated the President’s speech and analysis. (The newsmag had been slated to start at 10 p.m.)

Fox’s primetime sked was unaffected, and many of the web’s affils carried the live feed from the Fox News Channel cabler. All-news cablers had set aside the evening for coverage and analysis once the White House made a Monday afternoon announcement about the primetime address.

On the webs, a barrage of legal and political analysts and Capitol Hill politicos quickly joined the chorus of commentary, sometimes bumping into one another on the webs. At one point NBC Tom Brokaw introduced Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), but in fact Frank was still over on CBS chatting with Dan Rather.

CBS White House correspondent Bob Schieffer seemed overwhelmed by the President’s speech, telling anchor Rather, “I’m going to take a deep breath, Dan. That was just an extraordinary statement.”

Over at ABC, bulldog correspondent Sam Donaldson offered a snap judgment: “He didn’t come clean tonight with the country.”

On CNBC, a stern-faced Geraldo Rivera admitted that Clinton “sent chills through my body” when the President acknowledged that he “misled people, including even my wife.” Rivera’s CNBC colleague, “Equal Time” host Bay Buchanan, chimed in on CNN’s pundit roundtable anchored by Larry King. Noting that she worked in the Nixon camp during Watergate, Buchanan told King that “It’s really a sad day.”

Over on the Fox News Channel, anchor Tony Snow asked Beltway sex scandal vet Dick Morris if Clinton did effective damage control. “Sure did,” said the former Clinton adviser. “The average American viewer — their heart will go out to this guy.”

The President’s former aides, many of whom have newfound careers as TV commentators, were out in full force, offering varying degrees of support for the old boss.

Most prominent was ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, who capped off the web’s coverage Monday by saying the scandal was not over yet.

The nets also tried to take the pulse of the American public, with NBC offering its own instant focus group of about 10 everyday citizens, while CBS surveyed exercisers at an L.A. gym and travelers at the Dallas airport. NBC’s civilians and the gymgoers seemed overwhelmingly supportive of the President, while the Eye web’s travelers seemed less impressed.

According to a CBS News snap poll, 63% of those queried believe the matter should be dropped, while 30% said they think the President should resign or be impeached.

Throughout the day Monday, it was wall-to-wall speculation on the all-news cablers and, to a lesser degree, the broadcast webs. Journos covering President Clinton’s afternoon testimony spent hour after hour reporting just how little they knew about what was going on inside the White House.

“It’s zero hour on a muggy Monday,” CBS anchor Rather told viewers shortly after 1 p.m. EDT, as the President began just over four hours of closed-door testimony over a 5-1/2-hour period. Rather was labeling Clinton’s key testimony as zero hour, but “zero” also sums the amount of hard facts served up for most of the day before Clinton delivered his address.

Fox News’ Snow conceded to Daily Variety Monday afternoon that he and his colleagues had nothing hard to report to viewers. “We’re sort of peering into a black box and conjuring up images,” he said.

The lack of info didn’t stop all-news cablers CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC from saturation coverage of the President’s testimony, starting first thing in the morning and continuing on well into the evening.

All three packaged their reports with special graphics, music and some variation on titles such as “The President Testifies” or “Clinton Under Oath.” MSNBC/NBC News featured snazzy 3-D graphics illustrating where in the White House Clinton was giving his testimony.

Rather argued that while there was little actual news coming out of Washington for much of the day, historic events were unfolding, thus warranting the tube’s comprehensive coverage.

“This whole case is in the process of taking a truly dramatic turn,” Rather told Daily Variety. “No one knows which way it’s going to turn … (but) the future of the Clinton presidency is at stake.”

After yakking the subject to death on their ayem shows, the Big Three webs carried five- to 10-minute special reports at around 1 p.m., noting with odd specificity that the President had begun spilling his guts at 12:59 p.m. on the dot. ABC’s Peter Jennings, CBS’ Rather and NBC’s Brokaw were all live from Washington.

For a while, CNN kept up an on-air Chyron, which stated the fact that Clinton was right this very minute testifying, and noted the elapsed time — down to the minute — since he had started his testimony.

CNN dropped the Clinton Watch after a few hours because the cabler “found out the President was taking breaks which we weren’t being told about,” a CNN spokesman said. “At that point, an elapsed time made absolutely no sense.”

With official Washington assuming that Clinton had decided to admit to a sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky, much of the speculation Monday centered around whether Clinton would address the nation, and if so, what he would say and from where in the White House he would say it.

Thus, the news that Clinton had ended his testimony — and that, yes, he would talk to the nation at 10 p.m. EST — was treated as a Major Event, with the webs breaking into regular programming to tell viewers that the questioning of the president had wrapped up at precisely 6:25 p.m.

That was just in time, on the East Coast, for the webs to segue into their evening newscasts, which featured more dribbles of news along with the sight of independent counsel Kenneth Starr departing the White House with a weak smile.

“The independent counsel has left the building,” one anchor noted, perhaps unaware of the Elvis overtones of his statement.

The evening newscasts also featured a hefty dose of What It All Means analysis.

ABC’s Donaldson described the mood in the White House as “like watching people walk through a hospital ward … the disillusionment in their eyes was painful.”

Over on CBS, Rather warned viewers, “This is not an ending. It’s a turning point.”

The yapping continued on cable into the night, with Rivera anchoring a special report on CNBC, while MSNBC lived up to its rep as the All-Monica web with continuous chatter about the day’s events.

On CNN, Larry King signed on at 6 p.m. PDT with an all-star panel of talking heads, which led into the President’s much-anticipated address to the nation.

(Cynthia Littleton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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