Get Condit! The Anatomy of a Prime-Time Seduction.
Networks call it 'the Get,' the relentless courting of a sizzling subject, who finally grants an exclusive on-air interview. PLUS: A comprehensive ratings chart, from Monica to Woody to the Unabomber.
  • by Warren Cohen and Tom Bierbaum
    Wednesday, August 22, 2001

    60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt has called the scramble to land the hot newsworthy interview of the moment "the most disgusting" thing on television. Barbara Walters said it was "the least pleasant part of the job." But this Thursday, audiences around the country will probably gather to watch the latest version of what network newsies call "the Get" when press-dodging Congressman Gary Condit finally squirms in front of ABC's Connie Chung.

    Unlike the old prestige network interview, such as a one-on-one with the president or a foreign dignitary, the Get involves a labored courtship with a previously unavailable subject who, at a moment of heightened interest, finally deigns to an on-air exclusive.

    Is all the competition worth it? An Inside survey of the most memorable Gets shows that the Nielsen impact of these big-name interviews varies across the rating spectrum, but the biggest, most newsworthy interviews can truly send the numbers into orbit and buoy the performance of a TV newsmagazine.

    The ritual to bag a Get seems standard among all networks: bombard the target with as many phone calls and pitches from as many correspondents, bookers and producers as possible. (Pat Korten, a PR rep hired byJonBenet Ramsey's parents, says he received 75 to 80 calls per day in the first several weeks after the girl's murder.) In the wooing process, many of the sober-minded journalists turn to pandering. Earlier this year, the Web site The Smoking Gun published media letters to the ultimate Get hold-out, the Unabomber. CNN's Greta Van Susteren told him, "You are an extremely smart man." A 60 Minutes II producer promised to let the Unabomber "show the American people that you are, in fact, rational, clear-headed and sane." A final tactic is gifts, from flowers to fruit baskets (not to mention the airfare, hotel and meals necessary to set up the interview.)

    Even though many correspondents pursue the Get, the subject often has final say over the reporter and venue for the big talk, as well other requests. The first time suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian was interviewed by 60 Minutes, he asked to talk to Andy Rooney (because he was a big fan). When Diane Sawyer interviewed Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley for PrimeTime Live, the show aired a music video from Jackson's latest album as well as a half-hour music special weeks later. ABC executives denied any quid pro quo. For the Condit interview, ABC assented to a live on tape interview, not the preferred format as it prevents the correspondent from huddling with producers mid-interview to devise follow-up questions. Other shows, like 60 Minutes, refuse live on tape interviews.

    Chung has special expertise in the Get. In 1972 at the height of Watergate, Chung was national correspondent for CBS when she pursued Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to church. Later that year, she followed Richard Kleindienst, a nominee attorney general, into an all-men's country club. In 1994, she camped out for weeks in Oregon to get the first dibs at punk skater Tonya Harding, even though she was co-anchoring the CBS nightly news at the time. In 1997, while a Fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, Chung wrote a paper on "The Business of Getting 'The Get.'"

    The quest for Condit was typical. Condit and his press advisers choose Chung and her team -- producers David Doss and Santina Leuci -- over other hopefuls, including Chung's ABC colleagues Walters and Diane Sawyer, NBC's Stone Phillips and Andrea Mitchell and CBS's Ed Bradley and Lesley Stahl. Industry sources say that a friendship between Chung and Condit's main flack Marina Ein, along with a reported personal visit to Condit attorney Abbe Lowell, sealed the deal. A source close to Condit would only say that Ein had not received any personal visits from journalists and that no gifts had been sent to tempt Ein.

    The apex of the Get might have been Barbara Walters' March 3, 1999 interview of Monica Lewinsky on the Wednesday edition of 20/20. That coup generated an Academy Awards-like 33.4 rating, 48 share in households, taking a show that averaged a 9.9/17 during the 1998-99 season and more than tripling its usual rating. That season, the Wednesday 20/20 lost its time slot as often as it won it, but the night of the Lewinsky interview, the newsmagazine not only won the two-hour time period, but took it by a colossal 36 shares, nearly tripling its closest challenger.

    Most big-name interviews don't have nearly that kind of impact, but some do occasionally stir up big numbers of their own. On the eve of the 1994 Winter Olympics, Connie Chung questioned Tonya Harding and generated a 17.4/28, easily the best rating in the short life of Chung's Eye to Eye newsmagazine. In fact, it was a 35 percent jump over the second-best Eye to Eye rating. And it marked the only time in Eye to Eye's two-year life on the CBS schedule that the newsmagazine won its time slot during the regular season.

    But the vast majority of these interviews don't generate nearly that kind of ratings excitement. Last Friday's 20/20, for example, featured a Connie Chung interview of Karin Stanford, mother of Jesse Jackson's illegitimate child. That generated a solid 8.0/15 in households, best for 20/20 in five weeks, but with a mere 13 percent increase over the 7.1/10 20/20 averaged during the previous four weeks.

    As another example, Dan Rather's May 1 interview of Sen. Bob Kerry on 60 Minutes II provided no perceptible ratings help at all. The resulting 7.3/11 was, in fact, the second-lowest 60 Minutes II rating of the second half of last season. And Diane Sawyer's January 11 interview of Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris on PrimeTime Thursday settled for an 8.7/14, a slightly above-average result for a show that scored an overall 8.0/13 for the season. Clearly, some public figures hold greater fascination to the viewing masses than others. But most news makers who agree to these heavily promoted exclusive interviews don't exactly command the kind of national mass-audience interest needed to move the Nielsen needle (see Inside's history of Get ratings below.)

    No matter how much the audience spikes, though, the Gets don't result in increased revenue. Most of the shows air in prime time, which means that vast majority of ads have been pre-sold during the network upfront market during the previous summer. "We can't go to an advertiser and say we expect to get a bigger audience with this interview," says one network executive.

    On the other hand, promoting a Get is also not as expensive as a typical special event. There are usually some network on-air promo spots during shows, but executives say the flurry of press surrounding the interview means they don't have push the throttle as much. "You don't have to air a lot of ads if it's on the front page of every newspaper," says another network source.

    The Levy-Condit affair is hot and has the potential to generate big ratings. NBC's Friday Aug. 10 edition of Dateline included a Stone Phillips interview of the parents of Chandra Levy and scored a 6.8/14. That's a noteworthy 51 percent jump over the 4.5/9 NBC was averaging in the two-hour time period over the previous four weeks.

    Given Condit's relative silence to date, along with the media's obsessive coverage of the scandal and its Monica-esque sexual elements, Thursday's PrimeTime Thursday interview is likely to land somewhat closer to the huge Lewinsky numbers of March 1999 than to most of these other lesser interviews. A conservative target would be to double or triple what PrimeTime Thursday's been averaging this summer, which would put the Condit edition somewhere in the 15-22 rating range. Anything above an 11.3 will be a new record for the first-year newsmagazine. The ratings, of course, run second to the bragging rights -- at least until the next scandal comes along.

    A Survey of the Top Gets in the Last Decade, ranked by household rating

    Date Subject Show Network Correspondent Household Rating Share
    3/3/99 Monica Lewinsky 1 20/20 ABC Barbara Walters 33.4 48
    6/14/95 Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley PrimeTimeLive ABC Diane Sawyer 25.9 42
    1/26/92 Bill and Hillary Clinton 60 Minutes CBS Steve Kroft 24.9 34
    10/25/92 Ross Perot, after dropping out of the race 60 Minutes CBS Lesley Stahl 24.7 39
    3/15/98 Kathleen Willey 60 Minutes CBS Ed Bradley 19.4 31
    2/10/94 Tonya Harding Eye to Eye CBS Connie Chung 17.4 28
    4/30/97 Ellen DeGeneres, post-closet PrimeTimeLive ABC Diane Sawyer 16.8 28
    3/17/96 Muhammed Ali, post-Parkinsons 60 Minutes CBS Ed Bradley 15.6 26
    3/12/00 Timothy McVeigh 60 Minutes CBS Ed Bradley 14.7 25
    11/25/97 Ken and Val McCaughey, parents of the septuplets Dateline NBC Ann Curry 14.4 24
    2/19/97 Mark Fuhrman PrimeTimeLive ABC Diane Sawyer 14.3 25
    11/13/96 Sarah Ferguson, post-divorce PrimeTimeLive ABC Diane Sawyer 14.1 24
    11/22/92 Woody Allen 60 Minutes CBS Steve Kroft 13.9 28
    4/6/97 Webster Hubbell 60 Minutes CBS Mike Wallace 13.3 25
    9/4/96 Susan McDougal PrimeTimeLive ABC Diane Sawyer 12.1 21
    4/16/00 Juan Migel Gonzales, Elian's dad 60 Minutes CBS Dan Rather 11 20
    1/5/95 Kathleen Gingrich, Newt's Mother Eye to Eye CBS Connie Chung 10.9 16
    11/29/94 Jeffrey Dahmer Dateline NBC Stone Phillips 10.7 17
    11/25/98 Kenneth Starr 20/20 ABC Diane Sawyer 10.6 18
    11/30/99 Monica Lewinsky 2 ABC News special ABC Barbara Walters 10.3 17
    12/14/98 Donatella Versace Dateline NBC Katie Couric 9.4 16
    09/01/96 David and Wanda Kaczynski, Unabomber relatives 60 Minutes CBS Lesley Stahl, Mike Wallace 9.2 22
    1/11/01 Katherine Harris PrimeTimeThursday ABC Diane Sawyer 8.7 14
    8/1/99 Wen Ho Lee 60 Minutes CBS Mike Wallace 8.4 17
    8/17/01 Karin Stanford, Jesse Jackson's mistress 20/20 ABC Connie Chung 8 15
    5/1/01 Bob Kerry, post Vietnam secret 60 Minutes II CBS Dan Rather 7.3 11
    8/10/01 Robert and Susan Levy, Chandra's parents Dateline NBC Stone Phillips 6.8 14