Outside Edge: Health and hot air on the sabbath

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Sunday morning television in Washington, DC, is for talking heads – before, at this time of year, the football comes on, which is for banging heads. If somebody is even modestly newsworthy, he or she might get on a couple of programmes. On Sunday, Barack Obama goes on five, probably a record, even if pre-recorded, and on Monday he is on David Letterman’s late-night CBS show, where gentle evisceration occasionally occurs.

The president’s calculation is that healthcare reform demands no less, following his vivid speech to Congress last week, and that he is his own best spokesman, which is true. Only Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network, where Obama is often portrayed as a commie/fascist/racist Kenyan, will not get the benefit of his persuasion, while the Spanish language Univision, serving close to 20 per cent of US residents, will – even if in English; which says something about the lie of the political land these days.

Sunday morning political TV exists outside America but nowhere else takes it quite so seriously. Germany has the very earnest Frühschoppen mostly intended to stop good burghers from firing up their lawnmowers, which would be verboten anyway. In Britain, few admit watching the box before noon on the sabbath, even though church attendance is minuscule, while in Japan there is no grass to cut. But in Washington somebody else cuts the lawn, when not glued to Univision, leaving the chattering political classes with nothing else to do.

What is aired does feed into the news cycle, faute de mieux, it being Sunday and before football kick-off. This explains why the sudden death last year of Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press, by a country mile the ratings leader and a pretty good interviewer too, prompted far more intense speculation in Washington over his successor than the state of Brangelina commands nationwide.

The lot fell on David Gregory, who is very tall. Naturally, his ratings have slipped, which is what happened to Jay Leno of the Tonight programme when he took over from sainted Johnny Carson, in what seems like the 18th century, immediately falling behind the aforesaid Mr Letterman on the Founding Fathers Nielsen ratings scale. He rose to outscore him during the civil war, which may be about to break out again if South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson, who called Mr Obama a liar during his healthcare speech to Congress, has his druthers.

(Mr Leno, meanwhile, reinvented himself this week in the 10pm slot, 90 minutes earlier than before, causing the screenwriters of police shows to contemplate striking again and the whole nation to get more sleep.)

What all this means is that Sunday morning American television has a lot of hot air and the president wants to demonstrate he can blow a bigger balloon than anybody else. He probably can, too. It is the deflating days that follow that are the problem.

The writer is a former FT Washington bureau chief

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