On the first day of the official fall TV season, the most compelling television came out of Washington rather than Hollywood.
President Clinton’s grand jury testimony was all about sex and lies, caught on videotape and broadcast for four hours by virtually every major — and some not-so-major — TV outlet in America.
The Big Three networks as well as some affiliates of other networks all blew out morning skeds Monday to air virtually all four hours of Clinton’s alternately salacious and tedious Aug. 17 videotaped grand jury testimony on the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio.
The bizarre footage will most certainly go down in history as the first — and with any luck, only — public discussion of oral sex by a U.S. president.
But viewers looking for fast-paced action or a smoking gun were most certainly disappointed. Most of the testimony was laborious and lawyerly, even as the questions focused in on Clinton’s understanding of the term “sexual relations” as defined in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit, and why oral sex and cigar games didn’t count.
The Clinton-Ken Starr legal showdown was carried unedited by all-news cablers CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. The webs and cablers affixed slates to their screens warning viewers of graphic content. Those slates also served as a running scorecard for viewers on the topics discussed and the reactions and counter arguments of the president.
Despite earlier indications that they might only break in from time to time with updates, the Big Three ended up offering almost wall-to-wall coverage of the president’s videotaped grand jury testimony Monday morning.
CBS ran the footage on a 10-second delay in order to warn viewers, via an on-air graphic, of upcoming explicit details.
NBC cut away twice because of concerns over the graphic content in the portions of Clinton’s testimony concerning masturbation during phone sex and the use of a cigar as a means of sexual stimulation.
Noting that Monday was a Jewish holiday, “We just did not think it added to (the story) to have that put on the air,” said Beth O’Connell, executive producer of special events for NBC News.
Los Angeles AM news radio outlets KNX and KFWB carried the tape on a delayed basis, enabling them to provide advance warnings of graphic testimony. KCRW, the national public radio outlet in Los Angeles, carried the uncut CNN feed live.
The TV webs took a modest financial bath by running the videotape without commercial interruptions. When there were breaks in the original Aug. 17 testimony, the webs had in-studio pundits at the ready. Some switched to live coverage of Clinton speaking before the U.N. General Assembly, where the embattled president received a standing ovation.
On the West Coast, CBS and NBC signed on at 6 a.m., while ABC waited until around 6:20 a.m. On the East Coast, that slower start allowed viewers of Gotham’s WABC to see “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” co-host Regis Philbin throw up his hands in disgust and declare that he was sick of the entire Clinton scandal.
ABC, CBS and NBC all expanded their evening newscasts to an hour Monday. ABC’s “Nightline” was also extended past its usual half-hour running time.
The timing couldn’t have been worse for Monday’s bow of Columbia TriStar TV’s syndie talkshow strip with Donny & Marie Osmond. “Donny & Marie” was preempted or bumped to a later timeslot in many markets.
At one point last week, ABC had planned to preempt tonight’s Cindy Crawford sex special for a special edition of the newsmag “20/20.” As of Monday, the Alphabet web was sticking with Crawford’s sex talk over Clinton’s.
“Dateline NBC” was expected to devote only about 10 minutes of Monday nights newsmag to the Clinton testimony, rather than the entire hour, especially after low ratings for NBC’s special, two-hour “Dateline” on the Clinton scandal the day after the Starr report was released, Sept. 12.
None of the networks were expected to delay any of Monday’s nine primetime series premieres in order to cover the Clinton scandal.
“People are sick of this and can find it everywhere else,” said one web exec.
(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)