Monica Burnout Hits Network TV

For a year, it has been a television news obsession: Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton. For most, it was the story of presidential crises. For others, however, it was an irresistible scandal, reports CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews.

Media critic Tom Rosenstiel calls the impeachment crisis the latest "O.J." or "Princess Diana."

"We're all geared up for stories that are a form of soap opera with characters, with sex, with scandal," says Rosensteil. "We thought not only did it nail our professional instincts, but it also served our programming interests."

But the Monica "ratings bubble" has burst. Cable TV still thrives on the story with a devoted scandal-hungry audience.

But after the president's testimony was released in September, the three main network evening newscasts lost two million viewers to scandal burnout.

"The problem is that each night's news starts to look at the same thing," says David Poltrack, CBS vice president of audience research. "This one story has been dominant in the newscast for too long a period of time, and the viewers are definitely tuning out."

What a change that is from Watergate, 25 years ago, when 20 million viewers sat riveted for the hearings. The difference is this: Eleven months non-stop Monica; broadcast lead story almost every night; saturation on cable.

At some point, this truly important story began to seem trivial. So how much of the public sees Washington as a kind of alternate reality, where the elite act out a constitutional crises, to an audience that can't believe the show is still on?

"It was reality that was turned into a television show," Rosensteil continues. "It's reality turned into our amusement. And the public has said okay, we're not amused anymore by this show."

And yet the show goes on. Now that it is about removing a president, it's playing to more viewers with remote controls set on mute.

Reported by Wyatt Andrews
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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