Brian Williams Gets President Obama to Shill for Conan

Rash Report: Critics Howl, But Viewers Don't Seem to Mind

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Once again, a network finds itself mired in a media-manufactured controversy. Did it go too far? Or are the lines of journalism, politics and pop culture so blurred that they can't be crossed, because in today's postmodern media environment, no one is quite sure where one begins and one ends? Of course, this is all about the bid by NBC's "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here" to get former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagoevich as a contestant (but settle for his wife, Patti), right?

Part two of NBC's 'Inside the Obama White House' with Brian Williams finished second in its timeslot Wednesday night with a 2.3/7 fast affiliate rating.
Part two of NBC's 'Inside the Obama White House' with Brian Williams finished second in its timeslot Wednesday night with a 2.3/7 fast affiliate rating. Credit: NBC
Well, no. Paying a politician who's been impeached and may be imprisoned hasn't hit as hard with the chattering class as a quick bit by President Barack Obama and "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams. In it the president presumes to take seriously Williams' question about the "Tonight Show" transition that took place Monday night, when Conan O'Brien took over Jay Leno's stand-up-comedy/sit-down-and-chat routine.

Some critics have cried foul, claiming NBC used a news interview to launch its late night schedule. The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg wondered how the NBC newsroom would react, as well as whether there will be any "political blowback, especially from those who believe that some in the news media are too chummy with the president and his administration."

Comparatively, however, there seems to be little backlash over NBC continuing to cover Blagojevich while concurrently considering paying him to participate in a reality show. Thwarted by a judge who decided allowing the indicted governor to coast around the Costa Rican jungle may not be such a good idea, it instead cast Illinois' former first lady.

The judge was right. And journalism critics generally have it wrong. Sure, it would be ideal to return to days more evocative of Edward R. Murrow than the provocative Howard Beale. But even presidents -- and the press -- should get to show a human side, as has been long accepted when prominent politicians talk about (or make silly wagers on) sports.

Had Williams taken an inordinate amount of time for the bit, it would have been a bit much. But this was just a few minutes out of an extended interview. And just as Obama is one of many pols to have palled around in a self-referential "Saturday Night Live" skit, Williams has already made the jump from journalism to entertainment, guest hosting "SNL" and hosting last month's upfront presentation of NBC comedy all-stars (where he was often was the funniest guy on stage). And yet no one doubts that Obama and Williams aren't dedicated to their respective roles of politics and journalism.

While the controversy continues among news hounds, Nielsen families seem to have sorted it out, as for the second straight night "Inside the Obama White House" was elected more often by those in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic than "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" Tuesday night's part one won its time slot with a 2.6/7 rating and share, while Wednesday's part two finished second in its time slot with a 2.3/7 fast-affiliate rating (final live-plus-same-day data are delayed until tomorrow. Please see the chart above for all show ratings).

Meanwhile, it's viewers who want out of "I'm a Celebrity," as its Monday-through-Wednesday track of 2.6/8, 2.2/7, 1.8/6 indicates. (And viewers aren't the only ones: Two of the "celebrities" -- recurring reality stars Heidi and Spencer Pratt -- made good on the show's title and exited.)

But beyond the overplayed Obama/Williams controversy and the underexamined Blagojevich situation, the real story is the schizophrenic scheduling. Like all networks, NBC runs a June-to-September schedule replete with repeats and reality. But maybe the network needs to reassess what summertime prime time is all about. Because despite the dustup, the success of "Inside the Obama White House" shows that an audience is available for journalism (and, yes, even some human humor) as well.

WHAT TO WATCH:
Thursday: The NBA Finals tip off on ABC as the Orlando Magic take on the Los Angeles Lakers.
Friday: The big screen is all about fun, frothy summer blockbusters. So get in the spirit on the small screen with Turner Classic Movies' "Spielberg on Spielberg," in which hit movie maker Steven Spielberg discusses his career. Right after, watch "Saving Private Ryan," which despite its intensity still became a summer hit in 1998.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Basketball purists may be fine with the Magic vs. Lakers matchup, but basketball promoters were hoping to hype hoops' top two stars, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and LeBron James of the Cleveland Caveliers. Will casual fans tune in to just Kobe?

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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.

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