WSMV-Channel 4’s decision not to air Al Sharpton’s appearance on Saturday Night Live because of concerns over federal equal time provisions smacks of corporate faintheartedness. More than that, it seems kind of silly. But if anyone’s at fault, it’s NBC for giving a presidential candidate 90 minutes of free publicity on the eve of the primary season, which begins next month.
Local Democrats and others were irritated by Channel 4’s decision to air a “best of Steve Martin” retrospective instead. But if a credible candidate for president were set to appear that night, the party line would have been different. Imagine if Channel 4 had aired an SNL episode with Howard Dean as the host, just two months before Tennessee’s Feb. 10 primary. How would John Kerry’s supporters react to that? What would John Edwards’ boosters say? They’d be raising hell, claiming correctly that Channel 4 gave their rival a major plug a few weeks before an important primary.
Take it one step further. What if George Bush were set to appear on SNL a few weeks before next year’s election while his Democratic opponent wasn’t afforded the same opportunity. The folks at Moveon.org would go postal. As they’d have every right to.
So why is everybody upset at Channel 4 for pulling Sharpton? Because he’s a novelty candidate who has no chance of winning the nomination or even affecting the dynamics of the race. No one takes Sharpton seriously. And despite a history of race baiting, Sharpton is an entertaining fellow, a court jester to liberals and conservatives alike. People wanted him to muck it up on Saturday Night Live. But despite the fact that Sharpton has a better chance of being named ambassador to Israel than winning the nomination, Channel 4 didn’t want to be in the position of making a judgment call about the electability of a primary candidate.
According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, the equal time provision says that a station selling or giving one minute to Candidate A must sell or give one minute to Candidate B. This regulation dates back to 1927, when some candidates feared that radio broadcasters might try to play kingmaker. It’s a very liberal measure premised on a healthy distrust of powerful media conglomerates.
“I did what I did based on the advice of my attorneys,” says Channel 4 general manager Steve Ramsey.
Actually, it’s difficult to imagine that NBC would have aired Sharpton’s appearance if the network felt that it would be in violation of the law. But why not wait until after Sharpton drops out of the race before letting him host the show?
Last July, WKRN-Channel 2 news director Matthew Zelkind enlisted Heather Orne, then a freelance producer at WZTV-Fox 17, to co-host the station’s News 2 This Morning show with her husband and all-around utility anchorman, Neil Orne. That was supposed to be a temporary measure until the station hired a more seasoned replacement, but after the married couple clicked and ratings ticked up, Zelkind has decided to make the move permanent. In fact, Neil and Heather have turned what could have been a gimmick into a very watchable morning news show. Channel 5 is still the ratings juggernaut in the morning, but Channel 2 is more or less even with Channel 4.
“We brought in people for auditions from all over the country, but Heather earned this position,” Zelkind says.
After three-and-a-half years covering the premier beat in local journalism, Tennessean music writer Craig Havighurst plans to vacate 1100 Broadway at the end of the month to return to freelance writing. He’ll also be working on a book called Air Castle: How WSM Made Music City U.S.A.
In an e-mail he sent to friends, Havighurst was all smiles. “Peter Cooper remains at the paper, where he will continue to cover country music better than anybody I know. Working with him has been a huge honor and learning experience. I also want to thank Tim Ghianni for his care and expertise in his years as entertainment editor. What a wonderful guy.”