Politics

06.10.14

Hillary Clinton’s Network Massage

Monday night’s relentlessly promoted Diane Sawyer interview felt full of pre-asked questions, little news—and hard selling of the possible next president’s new book, Hard Choices.

Hillary Clinton almost didn’t need to show up. After all, the interview was more about Diane Sawyer’s questions than it was about Clinton’s answers, and Sawyer’s questions had been played over and over and over again in network promos advertising the show.

So Monday night, when ABC finally got around to televising Hillary Clinton: Public and Private—One-on-One with Diane Sawyer, there was a sense of anti-climax in the air, and on the air. The show maybe wasn’t so much Hill’s Greatest Hits as Diane’s Most Askable Questions, and the questions were there as much to prompt viewer tweets, it seemed, as to elicit news from Clinton, possibly the next president of the United States.

The hashtag #HillaryonABC sat in the lower righthand corner throughout the show. Does that mean Clinton is running on the ABC ticket? Well, for now. She’s slated to appear Tuesday morning on ABC’s Good Morning America, where she’ll be grilled, no doubt mercilessly (yes, LOL) by Robin Roberts. Ooh, bet Hillary was up all night studying for that one. Maybe she’ll be asked to dance, the way the GMA anchors all do in their promos.

As for the Sawyer interview, the ABC World News anchor was strong and studious and technically delivered the goods, question-wise. But it was Hillary’s game, and it was Hillary and her mollycoddling (Hillycoddling?) staff who decided ahead of time how much news she was prepared to make. Answer: Almost none. She was there to sell her book, Hard Choices, out Tuesday, and Hard Choices got a Hard Sell. In preview clips from the show that aired earlier, Clinton managed to work the title of the book into an unrelated question about Vladimir Putin or something.

She knows what she wants. Does she want to be president? Will she run? The closest she got to answering that was “probably, likely” she’ll make and announce her decision next year. There’s a hot scoop. Sawyer asked, “Is the White House yours to lose?” and other good questions, but they hit a blank wall and fell splat.

Indeed, the questions were so generic, they seemed pre-asked, and not just because we’d heard them asked 100 times already in the promos. On Monday night, the answers proved just enough to be more than nothing, and not usually enough to be something.

Sawyer kept plugging away. She even hopped up to retrieve a photo from a table in the Clintons’ fabulously lavish home to ask questions about the Clintons’ early married life and courtship.

One feels for Sawyer. Her bosses at ABC would never allow a big splashy prime-time interview with Hillary that didn’t involve husband Bill’s fabled sex life.

Our Lady of the Interviews (now that Barbara Walters has retired, or semi-retired) asked the “right” questions, probably, but—and pundits will thrash this out for days—there didn’t seem to be any real surprises. In fact one pundit already logged in Monday night, calling the questions “crack cocaine for Twitter” and the show more “Twitterview” than interview.

ABC’s advance promotion was more than relentless. It was punishing. And over and over the line about “Nothing Off-Limits.” Everything was on the table, the promos said; no subjects were taboo. Well, we know what the American public thinks when they hear that Hillary will talk about Anything—that means she will talk about Monica Lewinsky. And so viewers were titillated with that for days on end. And about 42 minutes into the hour, Sawyer did indeed ask about Monica Lewinsky. Big deal—not.

One feels for Sawyer. Her bosses at ABC would never allow a big splashy prime-time interview with Hillary that didn’t involve husband Bill’s fabled sex life, especially while president. So Sawyer had to ask. It was all kind of sad, really. In ABC’s defense, Lewinsky leaped out of the closet recently [/content/dailybeast/articles/2014/05/09/how-monica-lewinsky-changed-the-media.html] with her shameless (and who knows more about shamelessness?) Vanity Fair affair.

Sawyer may have missed a golden opportunity, meanwhile. Once Hillary said she doesn’t know if she’ll run for president, even though we think she knows and she will, Sawyer backed off all policy-issue presidential questions she still could have asked—questions about the future to counter all those questions she asked about the past (not just the Monica past, to be fair; Sawyer also questioned Clinton about Benghazi [/content/dailybeast/cheats/2014/06/09/clinton-bill-and-i-were-broke-after-wh.html], of course, and intensely).

Whatever its shortcomings, Sawyer’s Hillary hour seems a cinch to be the most talked-about news show of the week. In fact, it’s been a happy spring for network news, which is supposedly perched on the brink of extinction because of competition from the Internet. But millions still watch the three network evening newscasts, and encouragingly enough—something of a rarity in TV—the best entry in that field is also solidly the most popular: NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

Williams’ half-hour regularly places first in the Nielsens, having won for 246 consecutive weeks, according to figures from NBC. (Never mind that ABC promos claim ABC is “first” in news. That’s playing with figures.) Williams also leads among the 25-54 demographic that is considered the primary news audience. And Williams did especially well the week ending May 30, the same week his riveting interview with intelligence leaker Edward Snowden aired in prime time.

That show made headlines, and reaffirmed Williams’s prowess as a rigorous and expert interviewer, though right-wing groups immediately criticized him for giving Snowden a platform and not being tough enough, and so on. Williams was plenty tough.

NBC News can be even prouder of last week’s prime-time special on D-Day. Williams interviewed and profiled four D-Day veterans, showing his sensitive side without ever seeming maudlin. NBC alone sent its anchor to Normandy for the D-Day anniversary, and while some industry folk may have considered a prime-time hour for D-Day to be a good deed that would scare the audience away, NBC won the time slot, an NBC source says proudly.

Those two shows demonstrate not only that network news still survives but that documentaries, more-or-less traditional documentaries, are not the stumbling dinosaurs they’re alleged to be, in spite of all the junky, fun-formational pseudo-docs on cable—and that would include CNN’s super-production The Sixties++ [/content/dailybeast/articles/2014/05/29/cnn-60s-series-looks-at-how-the-kennedy-nixon-debate-changed-tv.html]. The ongoing series’ recent hour on TV in the ’60s was dizzy with fine clips, but there was barely an insight in the house. Just lots of “celebrities,” for the most part, saying they remembered TV in the ’60s and gosh, it was a really big thing.

The opening and closing sound bites were from Tom Hanks, actor and—oh yeah—one of the executive producers of the show. This was not onward and upward for TV news, but it got good ratings for CNN, so expect to see more. And more. And more—until you think you’ll scream.