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election2000 GOP demands equal TV time -- for the Democrats LOS ANGELES (Los Angeles Times) -- Network television executives chafed Thursday over a letter from a top Republican that demanded they air "not a minute more" of next week's Democratic Party convention than they did of the GOP's gathering in Philadelphia.

Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson sent a letter to the networks' news chiefs Wednesday asking to be informed ahead of time if they plan to provide "unequal coverage" by airing President Clinton's speech Monday after having skipped all or part of Laura Bush's opening night address in Philadelphia.

The networks already have come under fire from some of their own reporters for devoting less air time than ever before to the two major parties' nominating events. But they dismissed any suggestion that they are bound to devote exactly equal amounts of live air time to each, although they strive to maintain balance.

"It's their business to put pressure on and ours to resist," said Paul Friedman, executive vice president of ABC News.

Echoing the sentiments of the others, CBS News chief Andrew Heyward said the amount of air time allotted to the Democratic event would be decided based on news value.

"Maybe we'll devote more time to the Democrats, maybe less, depending on our news judgment," Heyward said in a letter Thursday to Nicholson. "We use a stopwatch as the logo of '60 Minutes,' but not to make journalistic decisions."

No consensus on coverage

The networks' coverage in Philadelphia varied widely. ABC carried the majority of an opening night speech by Texas first lady Laura Bush--wife of GOP nominee George W. Bush--for example, but cut off retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell when he ran past 11 p.m. EDT. CBS skipped Laura Bush and part of Powell. NBC skipped the entire opening night lineup.

Clinton's speech Monday already has caused some angst among network executives. NBC first said it would have no broadcast coverage of the GOP's events the first two nights of the convention (but would cover them on its cable channel). In the end, it devoted a half-hour to Sen. John McCain's speech Aug. 1 so it could cover Clinton in Los Angeles.

ABC, which was only going to air brief reports Monday night, got the National Football League to move the start time of two preseason games so it could carry Clinton, as well as the GOP's speeches July 31, which might not have made it on the air without the imperative to carry the president's address.

Trying to deflect some criticism

At CBS, which drew harsh reviews for jumping back and forth between convention and non-convention coverage, executives said they will stick to convention-related stories in their hourlong broadcasts each night in Los Angeles but will carry Clinton's speech.

Wary of being accused of unfairness, some executives also are quick to point the finger at their rivals. In his letter to the GOP, for example, Heyward wrote, "I'm curious whether you followed my suggestion to call NBC about its decision to air the President's speech on Monday after devoting zero minutes on its broadcast network to live coverage of your opening night. How does that fit with your 'not a minute more' standard?"

NBC said it is expecting to cover Clinton in the half-hour it has been informed he will speak but declined to speculate what it will do if his talk runs short or long.

At ABC, Friedman said the network went to great efforts every night in Philadelphia to summarize the day's events, and that cut into its Laura Bush coverage, but "it was our judgment that our audience deserved to see what the rest of the day was like and then we did the best we could with the rest of the speeches.

"We'll do the same with the Democrats based on what is happening at any time," Friedman said.

Whether Clinton's speech gets cut off like Powell's "depends on what he's saying," Friedman said. "We'll make decisions based on what else is happening."