Steroids, debate keep cablers hopping


NEW YORK -- Two big breaking news stories on Thursday -- the previously scheduled Democratic candidates debate from Iowa and the George Mitchell news conference about steroids in baseball -- caused quick shuffling in cable news.

Both occurred at the same time, leaving the networks to choose between the two for telecast on their main channel. CNN and Fox chose to air the debate, leaving the Mitchell news conference for Headline News and Fox Business Channel. Fox carried the full debate and continuously updated the conference on the lower third of the screen, while also streaming it live on the Web. MSNBC was originally going to run the debate but at the last minute went for the news conference as did sister network CNBC.

For CNN, there wasn't any debate over what to choose. CNN president Jon Klein said that it was only fair for the network to choose the Democrats since they had run the Republican debate the previous day. Headline News took the Mitchell news conference, and streamed it as well.

"It was not a wrenching decision," Klein said. "Our lifeblood is political coverage, and as they say in baseball, the tie goes to the runner and for us the runner is politics."

But MSNBC took a different tack. MSNBC chief Phil Griffin said that by late morning the channel decided that the Mitchell report was much more interesting.

"It's bigger than sports. It involves our national pastime, it involves parents talking to their kids, it involves the most popular sports figures and heroes in America," Griffin said. It wasn't as if the Democratic candidates hadn't met several times already, although it's the final debate before the Iowa Caucus on Jan. 3.

"Is this debate going to be remembered in 10 years or is this announcement by Sen. Mitchell going to be remembered in 10 years?" Griffin asked. "That's what guided us." MSNBC carried the entire Democratic debate on tape delay after the Mitchell news conference. All three cablers carried portions of baseball commissioner Bud Selig's news conference.

ESPN provided tons of coverage before and after the report.

In New York, the network O&Os didn't carry either the debate nor the news conference although WABC ran hourly updates on the big snowstorm that hit the region Thursday. Fox 5 New York and My 9 News both carried the Mitchell news conference.