Phone lines were burning up Sunday night in Cincinnati as angry Democrats vented their frustration at the sight of President Bush's local Ohio rally being carried live during prime time, in full and on all three network affiliates. The extraordinary free, unfiltered media gift to the Bush campaign -- on the eve of the election, and in one of the largest television markets in a crucial state that may be decided by just a few thousand votes -- unleashed a wave of angry phone calls and e-mails.
"It's very frustrating," says Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party in Ohio. "Am I surprised? No. Nothing surprises me about the coverage Bush gets around here." He notes Hamilton County, in the state's southwest corner, votes reliably Republican.
Recently, Democrats nationwide have become increasingly suspicious of local broadcasters trying to aid Bush's campaign. Earlier this month, the Sinclair Broadcast Group contemplated airing an anti-Kerry documentary on 62 stations, while last week Pappas Telecasting Cos. offered free commercial air time in California -- but only to local Republican candidates. (The Federal Communications Commission quickly stepped in and ordered Pappas to make a similar offer to Democrats running for office.)
Brennan Donnellan, news director at the local NBC affiliate in Cincinnati, WLWT, reports that in the wake of the Bush prime-time preemption the station "received a very large number of angry responses, easily over 100." Bill Fee, general manager at WCPO, the local ABC station, confirms that the viewer reaction from Democrats was "vehement." But both men defend their programming decision, saying it followed station policy to allow candidates to speak directly to Cincinnati viewers during this campaign season. Specifically, the stations' guidelines called for regularly scheduled programming to be interrupted in order to show local speeches from the candidates, as they happen. They say the reason the Bush coverage ignited such a stir was that it represented the first time one of the candidates spoke in prime time or for that long. (On Sunday morning, WLWT carried live remarks Kerry made from a nearby church, which lasted just eight minutes.)
"We made a commitment that any time after Labor Day when any of the four presidential and vice presidential candidates spoke in town, we pledged we would carry it live, either in full or in part," says Fee at WCPO. "Since Labor Day, we've cut into programming eight to 10 times." One time featured Sen. John Edwards speaking at 7:15 p.m., which preempted "Wheel of Fortune" and generated some angry calls from WCPO game show fans.
At WLWT, a similar policy applies, but it only covers appearances by Bush and Kerry, not their running mates. "We feel the political discourse on both sides is important and we want to give both candidates chance to have their voices heard," says Donnellan, who estimates the station has shown Kerry live three or four times during the campaign, but none in prime time. He says when the policy was agreed upon early in the year, questions were raised internally about what to do if a candidate came to Cincinnati and spoke during prime time. "We decided we would set the [must carry] policy early on and stick to it no matter what. I can understand how Sunday night might [have given] the appearance of unfair coverage. But if Kerry were to speak tonight in Cincinnati, we'd carry him live."