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Last-Minute Shuffle By Networks

A quick schedule shift by the White House on Thursday enabled President Bush to get considerably wider television exposure than he would have otherwise gotten for his prime-time news conference.

Faced with three of the four largest broadcast networks snubbing his news conference for regular prime-time programming, the White House moved the event from 8:30 p.m. EDT to 8 p.m. After the shift, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox all said they would cover it.

The White House tried to be accommodating when it realized it had left the networks in a bind on the first night of the May "sweeps," when ratings are closely watched to set local advertising rates, said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

"I think this worked out for everyone involved," he said.

The networks were informed at 9 p.m. EDT Wednesday that Bush wanted them to set aside time for the fourth prime-time news conference of his presidency.

Not only did the networks face a last-minute disruption during sweeps, it was to come on a Thursday — generally the most lucrative night for advertising revenue, largely because Hollywood studios are touting the weekend's new movies.

It's especially important at top-rated CBS, where Thursday mainstays "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Survivor" and "Without a Trace" are all regulars in Nielsen Media Research's top 10 shows of the week.

NBC, facing a last-minute disruption to its popular game "The Apprentice," told the White House that it would be very hard for it to carry the news conference, spokeswoman Rebecca Marks said. Although it hadn't announced a decision publicly, the cable news network MSNBC advertised that its speech coverage would be anchored by Brian Williams, who would normally be on NBC.

Both CBS and Fox announced by midday Thursday that they would stick with their normal prime-time schedules.

Only ABC, which has a weak Thursday prime-time lineup, said it would cover the speech from the start. ABC canceled the movie "Sweet Home Alabama" for Bush.

When the White House called at 4 p.m. to announce the time change, NBC said it would cover the event. CBS and Fox — not wanting to be left in the precarious public relations position of defying the president — quickly announced they would televise the news conference too.

Although networks generally cover presidents' speeches and news conferences when requested, there is precedent for turning them down if there's no national emergency or if the request comes during a political campaign, said Martha Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University in Baltimore.

"The networks are in a different kind of business than they were in the Nixon and Reagan years," Kumar said. "It is a business. News is less of a driver than entertainment."

Bush's three previous prime-time news conferences occurred a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, during the days before the war in Iraq and 13 months after the war started, she said.

At the same point in their presidencies, Ronald Reagan had given 20 prime-time news conferences and Richard Nixon 10. All were carried by the broadcast networks, Kumar said.

CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNBC and PBS all planned to cover Bush too. But even with those networks available in a majority of American homes, events like a presidential news conference get far greater exposure when they are on broadcast networks.

CBS said it would delay "Survivor" and "CSI" for an hour, pre-empting "Without a Trace" for the night.