07/14/97 - 10:14 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Hearings aren't ratings-grabbers for TV networks

TV networks are defending their decision not to air live coverage of the Senate hearings on campaign finance reform.

"This isn't Watergate," said Bill Wheatley, NBC's vice president for news.

Broadcast networks aren't carrying the Senate Government Affairs Committee hearings. CNN is providing part-time coverage. C-SPAN cuts away from the hearings to the floor of Congress. Only Fox News Channel, the fledgling cable network available in 21 million homes, is showing the hearings all day, interspersed with news updates and commercials.

The paucity of live coverage is in contrast to two previous summers of scandal: the 1973 Watergate hearings, most of which were carried on network TV; and the 1987 Iran-contra hearings, during which networks aired lively testimony from Oliver North, among others.

During the Watergate hearings, ABC's Bob Murphy said, "There was the sense that our system of government was being tested at a very, very profound level. These hearings have not reached that level yet."

"We don't think it's as dull as everybody else does," said Brit Hume, Fox's managing editor. "We are talking about whether the major policy decisions of the U.S. government were, in effect, put on the campaign auction block, and whether the system had become vulnerable to the influence of other governments. That's not small."

Hearings don't make great television. Coverage of the campaign finance proceedings has fallen off the front page of major newspapers. Network executives say there's no audience clamoring to watch the hearings. But some audiences are:

Callers are being referred to the network's Web site, AllPolitics, which provides live video coverage on a 2-by-3 inch screen.

Networks say they are covering the hearings in their news programming. While the issue of campaign finance is significant, they say, any new information has been minimal.

"It's not making news. It's so far a regurgitation of stuff that has been in the public records," said Lane Venardos, CBS's vice president of hard news and special events. "We lack the smoking gun that will make people care about something more than they do."

By Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY; contributing, Susan Gvozdas



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