Obama at 100 Days: Presidental Press Conference to Cost Networks Millions

Fox's decision not to air President Obama's press conference Wednesday night sheds light on the behind-the-scenes process by which the major TV networks decide to preempt their regular programming at the president's request -- a decision which costs them millions of dollars.

Fox is the only one of the major networks to skip the event -- Obama's third prime time press conference to be held on his hundredth day in office -- opting instead to show the drama "Lie to Me."

The conference, scheduled to air at 8 p.m. ET, will not just be held during prime time, but during the important sweeps period, costing the networks each millions of dollars in ad revenue.

It will air on ABC, CBS, NBC and the cable-news networks including Fox News and Fox Business.

Executives at each of the broadcast networks said they are increasingly sensitive about the White House's now routine requests for airtime, given the state of the economy and a decrease in ad revenues.

Profits at the networks have been sliding in the recession. Walt Disney Co. (which owns ABC and this Web site), NBC Universal, Fox and CBS are expected to post profit declines of 35 to 50 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to analysts who follow the companies. That's on top of a bad fourth quarter, when revenue dropped steeply at all the networks.

Some executives said they had made their concerns known to the White House. They all agreed to speak only on background or off the record.

"When the White House makes a formal request for time, the networks have traditionally cooperated," said an executive at one of the networks.

"It's a negotiation. But, there is a feeling among some networks that the White House has gone too far or asked too much. There is a sense the White House will request more time and with each request the bar for the networks gets higher," the executive said.

According to a Fox statement, the network will "be alerting viewers with an on-screen graphic at the top of the 8 PM (ET) hour that the press conference is available on Fox News Channel and the Fox Business Network."

Ratings for presidential events on the Fox network tend to be lower than the other networks and the company's cable channels outperform the broadcast during such events, said a person familiar with Fox's decision.

One source said Fox would lose $2 million to $3 million by airing the news conference instead of its regular programming.

An executive at one network called the losses during sweeps "not insignificant."

Fox's decision is the first time a network has turned down an Obama administration request for airtime, but the network has in the past opted to show its regular programming when other broadcasters picked up presidential events.

In 2000 Fox did not air a presidential debate and in 2001 it declined a request for airtime by President George W. Bush.

A source close to Fox's decision said White House requests were taken on a "case by case basis."

Twice this year Fox has rescheduled "American Idol," the highest-rated program on television to make room for an Obama press conference.

The White House would not comment on Fox's decision.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs last week said the date of the conference, falling on Obama's one hundredth day in office, was a coincidence.

Wednesday's news conference will be Obama's third in prime time. At the current pace, he is on track to hold one a month.

The president held his first news conference in February, and his second in March.

Some 40 million people tuned in to his March 24 prime time conference, down from 49.5 million for his first appearance Feb. 9.

More than half of the public, or 59 percent, said the president is on television about the right amount of time, according to an Associated Press poll released last week. Some 28 percent of respondents said the president is on TV too much, and only 10 percent would like to see him on television more often.