In the living rooms of eastern America Tuesday night, the score was Tim Allen, 1; Bill Clinton, 0.
The star of the situation comedy “Home Improvement” was secure in his usual spot at 9 p.m. EDT on ABC. At the very same moment, the president of the United States was struggling hard to command the attention of the American people as he answered questions in the White House East Room - a news conference that only one of the three major networks considered newsworthy enough to disrupt their lucrative schedules.
The decision by network executives at ABC and NBC to stiff the White House’s request for live coverage is the latest and most vivid demonstration of the dwindling power of presidents - and President Clinton in particular - to beckon a national audience at will.
Until a few years ago, prime-time news conferences were guaranteed coverage on all the networks. In 1992, when the networks refused to carry a news conference by then-President Bush on the grounds the event would be too political, it was considered a break with precedent.
The decisions by ABC and NBC to brush off the news conference Tuesday night - on the grounds that they didn’t think Clinton would say much of immediate importance - made clear that the standards have shifted. The networks don’t think they need a good reason to turn a president down; instead, a president must have a good reason if he expects the networks to put popular fare such as “Frasier” on hold.
“He’s being held to a standard that he has to make news to be covered” - a standard that other presidents didn’t have to meet, said Sanford Unger, dean of communications at American University.
The decision is all the more striking because Clinton scarcely has abused his presidential prerogative; Tuesday night’s was only the fourth prime-time news conference of his presidency.