LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
It's been wall-to-wall impeachment coverage on most networks. When CBS broke away mid-afternoon from live impeachment coverage, it prompted a tweet from New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg. Uncle Walter is crying, he wrote. He was referring to legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite. But CBS isn't alone. These are tough programming decisions. And even public radio station directors are having to decide what their listeners will hear and when.
Mark Lukasiewicz would know. He was once a senior VP of specials at NBC, making just these kinds of decisions. And he's now dean of Hofstra University's School of Communication. He joins us from their studios on Long Island.
Welcome to the program.
MARK LUKASIEWICZ: Thank you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what would Uncle Walter think?
LUKASIEWICZ: I think Uncle Walter would be shocked at the changes in his business since he was in that chair. There are just dramatically more platforms in which to absorb this content live and on tape but particularly live. And it's leading the broadcast networks to make different decisions. And the fact is the broadcast networks are no longer the lead players when it comes to live news delivery in this country.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What goes into a decision to carry this kind of live coverage? You must take a hit when you're not taking commercial breaks.
LUKASIEWICZ: You take a hit in a variety of ways. And every time there is a major breaking news event or a major planned news event like this that's going to disrupt the network's schedule, there are a whole bunch of players involved. When you look at the hundreds and hundreds of television stations across the country, the vast majority of them are not owned by the broadcast networks. They're owned by other businesses. Sinclair Broadcasting owns close to 200 stations. Tegna owns over 60 stations. Scripps own 60 stations. Those companies also have revenue at stake. And they don't necessarily toe the line of the broadcast network's decision about its programming.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fox News has gotten around some of these challenges by only airing impeachment coverage during the day. They are cable television, so they don't have some of these challenges as the terrestrial networks do. But they've been cutting away for prime time for some of their most popular opinion programs - Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham. Is Fox News laughing all the way to the bank? Do you think advertisers are pleased about their decision to limit live impeachment coverage?
LUKASIEWICZ: You know, I think for Fox, it's more about giving the audience what it wants. And you know, you asked about Walter Cronkite and how he would react. I think that is perhaps the most dramatic difference about today versus then, even versus - let's go back not so far to the Clinton impeachment in 1998, when the broadcast networks were still dominant. That was a time when it would have been unthinkable for the broadcast networks not to cover the impeachment wall to wall. And basically, an American news viewer, wherever they were watching their news, got the same story. We're in a different environment today. The audience that watches CNN - and to a greater extent, MSNBC - lives in a completely different fact universe than the audience that watches Fox News.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And is a network like CNN serving its viewers, for example, by choosing a live impeachment coverage over news reports on other issues? You know, for instance, just in this past week, we have the Wuhan virus, new immigration restrictions - plenty of other stories that are deserving of coverage. But we are not seeing that coverage because of the impeachment hearings.
LUKASIEWICZ: Look. I think that is a problem that's always been endemic to the news media and to live coverage. The big live story gets the attention. But you're right. There have been, you know - there'd been a major weather story, the coronavirus. There was a mass shooting on the streets in Seattle. All of these are worthy stories that deserve coverage.
I have to say, though, wearing my news judgment hat, there has been an impeachment trial of a president exactly three times in the history of the republic. I think that rises to a different level, and I think live coverage of this event is merited. I think it is the right call.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is likely to go into February - this trial. Is this sustainable, financially and journalistically, for the news media?
LUKASIEWICZ: Yes. I think it's sustainable, completely financially, because whatever the loss in commercial revenue - a network would take a hit if it chose to ignore this story as a news event. Viewership is up across the board, I believe, on the cable news networks. They'll do just fine covering this. And given the state of the law when it comes to political advertising, every one of these networks will make that money many times over during the presidential election cycle.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University's School of Communication, thank you very much.
LUKASIEWICZ: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.