Just As I Thought

Ratings grab or war statement?

The pleasingly snarky Lisa deMoraes in the Post comments on an upcoming Nightline:

ABC News’s “Nightline” will devote its entire broadcast on Friday to reading the names of the more than 500 U.S. servicemen and servicewomen who have been killed in action in Iraq.

As anchor Ted Koppel reads the names for the entire half-hour, viewers will see photographs of those killed since March 19, 2003, as certified by the Defense Department.

In its announcement yesterday, ABC News said the program was its way of paying tribute to the dead. And “Nightline” executive producer Leroy Sievers called it the program’s way to “remind our viewers — whether they agree with the war or not — that beyond the casualty numbers, these men and women are serving in Iraq in our names, and that those who have been killed have names and faces.”

That is good to know because otherwise we might be left thinking that Friday’s broadcast, which ABC will simulcast on its Jumbotron in New York’s Times Square, is a cheap, content-free stunt designed to tug at our heartstrings and bag a big number on the second night of the May ratings race.

Koppel, also in the announcement, acknowledged that Memorial Day might have been “the most logical occasion” to do the program. Ya think?

“But we felt that the impact would actually be greater on a day when the entire nation is not focused on war dead,” he said.

Ah yes, and, of course, Memorial Day falls outside the May sweeps, when viewer levels are used by the networks to set advertising rates. Memorial Day is also traditionally a day of very low television viewing. He forgot to mention that stuff.

Sievers and others we spoke with at ABC News insisted they did not realize that the May sweeps start tomorrow.

Additionally, he told Poynter Online yesterday that the idea came out of a brainstorming session and Koppel was all for it, as was the management of ABC News. Imagine, nobody at ABC News stopped to think that telecasting this thing on the second night of the May sweeps might appear like an unseemly sweeps ratings grab.

Who’d have thought that the only people in broadcast TV with no awareness of ratings sweeps periods all work at ABC News? I mean, what are the odds, really?

Update, April 29: Surprise, surprise! The right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group has ordered it’s ABC-affiliated stations to pre-empt the Nightline broadcast. They say it’s “contrary to the public interest.”
Well, it’s certainly not in the public interest to look into the faces of the more than 700 servicemembers killed fighting a poorly conceived war started by the political party that the Sinclair Broadcast Group gave $50,000 to.
Update, April 30: The story continues:

By way of supporting its contention that the “Nightline” broadcast is an antiwar statement, Sinclair noted that Koppel will not be reading the names of “the thousands of private citizens killed in terrorists attacks since and including the events of September 11, 2001.”

“We do not oppose an honest and sincere effort to honor those who lost their lives in Iraq, but it’s important at the same time to inform people about why we’re there, leading to the loss of life,” Faber told The TV Column.

But ABC News noted that all of its programs, including “Nightline,” have reported “hundreds” of stories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that on the first anniversary of 9/11, ABC News broadcast the names of the victims.

“The average viewer who watches the show [tonight] is not going to remember that,” Faber shot back.
Regardless of whether the Nightline broadcast was initially designed to garner high ratings, Sinclair has assured that it will be a bigger event than intended. And Sinclair is really coming off badly with its churlish statements. And frankly, like the Bush administration they support, Sinclair’s protest simply bolsters the arguments of the left, making it obvious that they don’t want the American public to contemplate the losses in Iraq.

Ted Koppel responded to Lisa deMoraes’ snarkiness in a letter to the editor today. Read it in the extended entry.

Not a Ratings Stunt
Friday, April 30, 2004; Page A28

I’m sorry that Lisa de Moraes has such a low opinion of my “Nightline” co-workers and me [TV Column, April 28]. If she were correct in alleging that we are using the names and images of our Iraqi war dead to artificially inflate our ratings, I would have a pretty low opinion of us also.

We have been doing little but covering the war in Iraq for more than a year now. For most of that time, we have ended each broadcast with a segment titled “In The Line of Duty.” In it, we refer to those U.S. troops who have been killed and wounded that day.

There are ways to artificially boost Nightline’s ratings and they could involve a list of names. Kobe Bryant, for one; Scott and Laci Peterson seem to attract a lot of viewer attention, as, of course, does Michael Jackson.

But that’s not what we do. It’s not who we are.

Frankly, I will be surprised if our ratings go up tonight when I read the names of our war dead in Iraq. Either way, though, it will all average out over the rest of the month when we continue to devote the lion’s share of our coverage to the ongoing war and its implications.

TED KOPPEL
Anchor and Managing Editor
ABC News Nightline
Washington

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