Susan Boyle Pre-Empting Obama? Sad, Yes, But Attention Must Be Paid

Last Updated Jul 22, 2009 5:10 PM EDT

Forgive me for giggling, just a little bit, over the fact that President Obama decided to change the time of his primetime speech about healthcare for NBC's special night featuring Susan Boyle, the "Britain's Got Talent" sensation who is giving an exclusive interview tonight to "The Today Show"'s Meredith Vieira followed by an appearance on "America's Got Talent." Finally, an American network has found a way to make money off of her, and damn, if the president doesn't try to come along and ruin it all!

But seriously: what's up with The White House not checking the programming guides before scheduling the press conference?

This isn't about the White House so much as it is about our viewing habits, for better or for worse -- and the need for even a popular president to be always conscious of them. Imagine if the Obama Administration had waltzed in and chosen to air a press conference during the seventh game of the World Series? As a nation, we sate ourselves with entertainment, and unfortunately, even when the President wants to discuss an issue as important as healthcare, if a big audience is expected to view an entertainment event on the same night, it, and the fortunes of the network that is airing it, cannot be denied.

I know how pitiful it is that a president finds it in his best interests to reschedule something truly important for a middle-aged woman from another country who lives alone with her cat. That's gotta hurt. But the fact is that the presidency, just like any other entity with a keen interest in commanding the airwaves, has to take into account what else is going on in the media universe before trying to stake a claim to some of it. This is not just about viewership -- a key concern if Obama wants his press conferences to avoid being permanently exiled to cable -- but also an economic one. The tally of lost ad revenue across the broadcast networks after his first three presidential press conferences was $30 million. That was enough for Fox to put his last press conference exclusively on cable, and it is doing so again tonight. While it's easy to jump to the conclusion that this has something to do with that media brand's political leanings, there's an economic argument to be made too -- "So You Think You Can Dance" is one of Fox's best performing summer series. At a time when, for instance, NBC Universal's earnings declined by 41 percent in the last quarter, the $30 million the networks have lost so far in the Obama administration is real money.

Things have changed since the days of the late, lamented Walter Cronkite. And though we may not like some of the fallout from having so many media options to choose from -- particularly in what many of us sometimes choose -- as Cronkite himself might have said, "That's the way it is." If the president wants to get maximum reach for his message, not to mention bolster the fortunes of the media sector of the economy, he has to reconcile himself to that fact.

(As an aside, I guess now I know why NBC seemed the most obsessed of all of the American networks with the Susan Boyle story -- because, even in the popular imagination we equate "American Idol" with "Britain's Got Talent" because Simon Cowell is a judge on both shows, in point of fact, the real counterpart to BGT is, uh AGT.)

Previous coverage of the Susan Boyle phenomenon at BNET Media: