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."
But are the events worth it to the networks?
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.