In the days before President Obama's last news conference, as the networks weighed whether to give up a chunk of their precious prime time, Rahm Emanuel went straight to the top.
Rather than calling ABC, the White House chief of staff phoned Bob Iger, chief executive of parent company Disney. Instead of contacting NBC, Emanuel went to Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric. He also spoke with Les Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, the company spun off from Viacom.
Whether this amounted to undue pressure or plain old Chicago arm-twisting, Emanuel got results: the fourth hour of lucrative network time for his boss in six months. But network executives have been privately complaining to White House officials that they cannot afford to keep airing these sessions in the current economic downturn.
The networks "absolutely" feel pressured, says Paul Friedman, CBS's senior vice president: "It's an enormous financial cost when the president replaces one of those prime-time hours. The news divisions also have mixed feelings about whether they are being used."
While it is interesting to see how a president handles questions, Friedman says, "there was nothing" at the July 22 session, which was dominated by health-care questions. "There hardly ever is these days, because there's so much coverage all the time."
Had Obama not answered the last question that evening -- declaring that the Cambridge police had acted "stupidly" in arresting Henry Louis Gates at his home -- the news conference would have been almost totally devoid of news. And that raises questions about whether the sessions have become mainly a vehicle for Obama to repeat familiar messages.
Mark Whitaker, NBC's Washington bureau chief, says Obama "is at risk of overexposure" and suggests the sessions are losing their novelty.
"Every time a president holds a press conference there is potential for news to be made, as he did, probably to his regret, with his comments on the Gates case," Whitaker says. Still, he says, "we would feel better" if White House officials "were approaching us with the sense that they had something new to say, rather than that they just wanted to continue a dialogue with the American people. There are other ways of continuing that dialogue than taking up an hour of prime time."
Sarah Feinberg, Emanuel's spokeswoman, says that after press secretary Robert Gibbs heard that network officials had concerns about programming conflicts, "Rahm made a round of calls to network executives to discuss ways the White House could accommodate concerns." The upshot was that the news conference was moved up an hour, to 8 p.m. -- a boon to NBC, which had a 9 p.m. special featuring overnight British singing star Susan Boyle.
Emanuel tried to create a sense of momentum -- calling Disney's Iger last, for instance, and saying he had secured agreement from the other two networks.
Tensions have been building behind the scenes. Some television executives say the Bush administration informally floated possible news conference dates in advance, while Obama officials basically notify the networks of their plans. Such an approach prompted calls between White House officials and the top executives at each network, and a meeting between Gibbs and the Washington bureau chiefs.
But little changed. White House officials essentially dictated the timing when they decided to hold an evening session on the 100th day of Obama's term and again on July 22. In that instance, network executives say, the White House announced the event on its Twitter feed less than an hour after informing them.
Since the Reagan era, when cable news was in its infancy, prime-time presidential pressers have been a relative rarity. George H.W. Bush held one in 1992, but the broadcast networks dismissed it as an election-year event and refused to carry it. The following year, when Bill Clinton held his first evening news conference, CBS and ABC stiffed him; NBC carried the first half-hour; only CNN and PBS aired the whole thing. George W. Bush held four such events in eight years.
Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's first White House press secretary, says ABC and CBS rejected her first prime-time request in 1993 on grounds that the press conference was "not news."
"With Obama," she says, "everyone wants to have a relationship with the president because he's been good for ratings. I've been impressed by how easily they seem to be able to roadblock an hour. No other president in TV history would have been able to do it."
The financial stakes are considerable. ABC, CBS and NBC have given up as much as $40 million in advertising revenue to carry this year's East Room events. "We lose more than $3 million a show," Moonves told Mediaweek. The Fox broadcast network has declined to carry the last two Obama sessions.
Every president exercises considerable control over his encounters with reporters, picking on selected journalists and deflecting questions he doesn't like. But Obama's discursive style has also tended to depress the news value of the sessions.
He began the last one with an eight-minute opening statement. His answer to the first question, including a follow-up, lasted more than seven minutes. All told, the lengthy responses allowed time for only 10 reporters to be recognized. And Obama's professorial style of explaining policy at length, rather than offering punchy sound bites, may serve him well, but rarely yields dramatic headlines.
One result: The audience is gradually dwindling. The last presser drew 24 million viewers, a significant number but a 50 percent decline from Obama's first such event in February.