In considering coverage for Tuesday's inauguration, the nation's broadcasters - using the public's airwaves - gave a civics, economics and sociology lesson by what they chose to program, and what Americans chose to watch.
During the daytime they set aside soaps for a real daytime drama, the inauguration of the nation's first African-American president. Almost 37.8 million watched on TV, which was the highest total since another transformational politician, Ronald Reagan, took the oath within hours of the hostages released from the U.S. embassy in Iran (now that's a news day!).
Having given their civic lesson, they then taught an economic one, banking on pop culture instead of politics. Of the Big Four networks, only ABC gave full primetime prominence to the inauguration's shift from the capitol mall to capitol balls.
While disappointing to those who still believe the nation's airwaves should reflect the national story, it proved to be savvy scheduling. Fox's "American Idol" beat the American many idolize (at least during his honeymoon phase) by drawing over 13.8 million households, compared to ABC's 9 million for coverage of the "Neighborhood Ball." This also helped "Idol's" lead-out program, as "Fringe" (8.1 million homes) beat coverage of the now mainstream politician on CBS (5.1 million for "Change and Challenge: Inauguration").
"Change and Challenge" was hosted by CBS anchor Katie Couric, who surprised most media mavens by becoming one of the campaign's most consequential journalists due to her intriguing interview with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. But CBS missed an opportunity to further showcase her work by bookending their coverage with reruns of "NCIS" and "The Mentalist."
But it was perhaps NBC which had the most incongruous inauguration night programming, as it ran "The Biggest Loser: Couples" while the winning couple from November's election had their first dance at the first of ten inaugural balls. But continuing the network TV sociology lesson, it's no mystery why history was set aside for a reality TV show, as the 7.2 million households watching "The Biggest Loser" was a gain of 16% over last week.
Just like politicians, networks are answerable to the public (and are publicly traded companies facing declining ratings and revenue). But in an era of many questioning the journalistic relevance and financial rewards of nightly network newscasts, all but ABC ceded the story, in whole or in part, to its cable competitors (or cable cousins, given today's media conglomerates).
It may have paid off Tuesday night. But over time, it's the same media mistake made during the campaign that resulted in news viewers often looking to cable as their first place for television news.