Major network execs at ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX decided this week that they will not be airing President Barack Obama's major immigration speech on Thursday night. Their regularly scheduled programming for the 8 p.m. hour includes popular programs like "The Big Bang Theory," and the networks, faced with the prospect of losing millions of dollars in ad revenue by running the speech ad-free, appear to have decided that they can't afford to pre-empt the shows.
So, which programs are they banking on instead? ABC plans to air the fall finale of the long-running medical drama "Grey's Anatomy," in which "a disagreement about a patient's case leads to a bigger argument between Meredith and Derek." On NBC's "The Biggest Loser: Glory Days," players will compete in a "sandpile challenge," before "reflect[ing] on their accomplishments and communicat[ing] their goals while hiking with their trainers." On CBS' "The Big Bang Theory," "Howard and Raj look for something significant in a dead professor's research," and on FOX, it's, well, yet another episode of "Bones."
A CBS News spokeswoman confirmed the network will not broadcast the address but declined to elaborate further. A spokesman for ABC News pointed out that while the network won't air the speech, ABC's digital platforms, including radio and Apple TV, will carry it. Representatives for Fox and NBC did not respond to requests for comment.
Like it or not, the networks probably aren't wrong about viewers being more interested in their shows than a presidential announcement, even though a recent Gallup poll did show that Americans view immigration as one of the most important "problems" facing the nation today. As The Washington Post points out, viewership of presidential speeches has declined over the years, and particularly during Obama's presidency, as the number of distractions on our TVs, computer and tablets have increased.
And even if it's a sad reflection of the nation's priorities, for the networks, the decision to keep Obama off most broadcast TV stations is just business. The fact that they're are all in the middle of Nielsen's November "sweeps" period, when viewership helps determine local advertising rates, makes it even more crucial. In September, which isn't a sweeps period, broadcast networks did cover Obama's 9 p.m. speech on the Islamic State, forcing them to delay or cut into some programming.
Anyone wishing to hear the details of Obama's executive action on immigration, which could reportedly affect as many as 5 million immigrants, can tune into the address on PBS, a cable news network or somewhere online. Still, miffed White House officials have expressed disbelief at the lack of attention the networks are paying to Obama's speech.
“In 2006, Bush gave a 17 minute speech that was televised by all three networks that was about deploying 6000 national guard troops to the border," a senior administration official told Politico. "Obama is making a 10 minute speech that will have a vastly greater impact on the issue. And none of the networks are doing it.”
Primetime TV and high-profile presidential speeches have butted heads publicly before. In 2010, fans of "Lost" nearly blew a gasket over news that Obama's State of the Union address might pre-empt the show's finale. That didn't end up being a problem, though the show's diehards may have ultimately been just as upset after seeing the long-awaited conclusion.