President In Crisis: TV divided on what to screen

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The Independent Online
TELEVISION EXECUTIVES in New York were breathing a sigh of relief last night that at least they have the weekend to ponder how they are going to handle the videotape of President Bill Clinton testifying about his liaisons with Monica Lewinsky before the Starr grand jury. What they cannot do, however, is ignore it.

When a CBS spokesman commented that the release of the tape at 9am on Monday will take all of the networks into "uncharted territory", he was hardly joking. Because of its likely content, alternately salacious and legalistic, the video presents network schedulers with some highly unusual dilemmas.

The good news is that the tape, expected to last four hours, amounts to the largest chunk of free programming supplied by the government since Nasa showed the first moon landings. Most believe it could do for television ratings what the Starr report did for newspaper sales a week ago - send them soaring.

The main cable news networks, notably CNN, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, already seem to have made their decision. They will show the President's entire testimony in all its unexpurgated glory the moment it is fed to them by Congress. There will be no breaks for advertising. They plan to run what is called a "crawler" at the bottom of the screen, warning viewers of possibly offensive content.

While poll after poll suggests there is considerable squeamishness among Americans about the down-and-dirty details of the President's affair, as well as general weariness with the scandal, cable executives are gambling that such surveys of the public mood conceal a heavy dose of hypocrisy. One cable executive who is hoping for a ratings bonanza from the tape said: "This is why God made cable."

We will know soon whether the gamble pays off. One who will try not to watch is Doug, a vendor at the Union Square farmers' market in Manhattan. "I've read the book, I really don't want to see the movie," he said yesterday.

Until they see it, television executives do not know what to expect of the tape.

On the one hand, there is the risk that it will contain long stretches of tedious legal argument. On the other hand, those portions dealing directly with sex promise to be more compelling than Coronation Street or even the racier American soap, Melrose Place.

Those who have viewed the tape describe Bill Clinton displaying frustration and flashes of anger at some of the intimate questions put to him during his testimony. Viewers will witness the presidential jaw drop when Mr Clinton is asked to confirm that a certain cigar found its way into one of the sex sessions.

For now, it seems the traditional broadcast networks, unlike their cable cousins, will treat the material with some circumspection, if only out of concern for children who may be tuned to their stations. ABC and NBC have indicated that they will show only excerpts. These excerpts would similarly find their way into scheduled news broadcasts.

The spokesman for CBS said the network remained uncertain if it would air the material "as it comes in", or take the option of edited excerpts. All three networks will, however, give instant access to the complete tape on their Internet sites.

"The reason for the different standard between networks and their Web sites is that everyone has access to our network, including lots of children," said Eileen Murphy of ABC. "On the Web site you have to seek it out."

There should be at least a few sanctuaries somewhere on the dial. If Doug has to turn on his set on Monday, he might try the Fox Family Channel, for instance, or perhaps the Food Channel.

The first company in Britain to publish the Starr Report, Orion, says it is has sold 95,000 paperback copies in two days, from an initial print run of 100,000. A company spokeswoman said the demand was"incredible".

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