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CAMPAIGN ’88 : NBC Gently Persuaded

The decision announced Tuesday by NBC to preempt Olympic coverage to air the Sept. 25 presidential debate was made after some heavy arm-twisting from Capitol Hill, including the leaking of a letter from two of Congress’ most powerful Democrats, Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina.

NBC had been saying for months that it would not preempt the Olympics for the debates. Its change of heart will cost the network about $8 million in advertising.

But some things matter more than money. Dingell and Hollings head the House and Senate committees that oversee telecommunications issues. Both are regarded as stubborn fighters with long memories, and networks are loath to get into fights with them.

The two legislators did not actually have to send their letter. They made sure NBC officials knew it was coming, apparently by telling Dukakis campaign officials, who then told the network brass. A few hours later, an NBC official called to say that network President Robert C. Wright planned to announce that NBC would air the debate after all. Wright, who was en route Wednesday to South Korea for the Olympics, could not be reached for comment.

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According to Dingell aides, who read part of the letter to The Times, Dingell and Hollings planned to express “disappointment” that “a major public network would apparently abuse a public trust” by refusing, for the first time, to air a presidential debate.

Although the letter did not contain any explicit threats against the network, “the expression of concern itself certainly demonstrates an implied threat,” a senior aide to Dingell said.


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