****UPDATE: FINAL RATINGS SINK LOWER

WHEN MORE TUNE IN TO WORLD NEWS THAN ABC SPECIAL, WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO WOW VIEWERS?

A few disclosures will be sprinkled throughout this post, but first, I think I have a news crush on the astronaut, Mark Kelly.  You know how when you meet a guy who’s so spectacular but taken, so you think, “is there a brother like him at home or did they throw away the mold after this one?”  Well he’s got an identical twin.

my news crush began when I saw the healing hand of Capt. Mark Kelly

My news crush on Kelly began the moment I saw that photo: the close up of his hand grasping hers, “hers” being Gabrielle Giffords who the world now knows has been fighting for her life, and now is  just fighting to return to her husband.  Their love story was told by Diane Sawyer Tuesday night in a special edition of 20/20.

This ABC News exclusive,  a story that is still developing daily,  played to all the strengths of Sawyer. (Disclosure #2: I produced Diane’s interviews for 15 years.  I acknowledge this not to reveal any personal bias, but more to state a truly academic knowledge of the art of the interview.)

In the broader Tuscon story, Capt. Kelly was “the get.”  From the start, the killing rampage in Tuscon captured the hearts and minds of America.  Anchors rushed to the scene.  The nation was captivated.   Over 2 million more people watched the combined evening newscasts than the week before.

The individual stories of the victims were both heart-breaking and heart-rendering… the nine year old who wanted to learn about democracy, the 30-year-old congressional aide who had just proposed to his girlfriend, the husband who was killed throwing his body over his childhood sweetheart to save her life.  And now, the story of Gabby Giffords, the congresswoman who was shot in the head by the disenfranchised community college student who appears to be off his rocker.

Tuscon is an epic tragedy with, it turns out, many tenacles. It developed into a political drama as well and not just the debate sparked over use of crosshairs graphics or incendiary rhetoric. After the President of the United States arrived bedside and offered words so powerful and healing, his biggest critics agreed his speech to the local crowd in the gymnasium could mark a turning point in his presidency.

Obama’s revelation that Gabby Giffords had opened her eyes reminded us all, “Yes, we can.”   And when the astronaut, or rather her knight in shining armour agreed to tell his story, their story to Diane Sawyer, I knew it was an hour not to miss. Who better to mine the interview, write the narrative and weave the various threads together into a tapestry of  hope, faith and personal challenges.

*** UPDATED RATINGS Oddly, I was in the minority.  Among adults 18 to 49, ABC News’ “Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly: The Congresswoman and The Astronaut” came in third Tuesday night with a 1.3 rating . CBS’ “The Good Wife” and NBC’s “Parenthood” tied for first with 2.1 rating each.

Among total viewers, (still preliminary) ABC News came in a distant second with an audience of 6.12 million viewers, less than Sawyer averages for World News. “The Good Wife” garnered 11.34 million total viewers. (These are The Nielsen Company Fast Affiliate, Live + Same Day Ratings, 1/18/11, which were posted on ABC.com, and may be adjusted Friday.)

I’m just not sure what it will take for viewers to care.  Had viewers moved on once they learned Gabrielle Giffords was going to make it? Did they not want to learn that the astronaut by her side had engraved her wedding ring with the words: “You are the closest to heaven I’ve ever been.”

This special definitely played to Sawyer’s strengths.  The lyrical writing: “Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly: theirs not just a marriage, but an almost impossible convergence of earth and space  high octane dreams.  The congresswoman and  the astronaut, unexpected soul mates who a friend said were in a perpetual state of newlyweds.”

Sawyer promised a to reveal ” lessons about crises, love and strength” and she delivered.  The way she asked questions and then just shut up, letting Mark Kelly answer, reflect, answer some more.   He talked about the other victims, attending the funeral of the nine-year-old — the girl he said, profoundly, was just there to learn about democracy.

The questions were  simple and gentle like: “Does she recognize you?” That got a simple nod.  Instead of following up with the obvious “How do you know?” Sawyer asked “What convinced you?”   Mark Kelly then spent the next few minutes of the interview with wonderfully convincing details of how his wife plays with his wedding ring, takes it off, puts it back on, all with her left hand.  This, he explained, was something she did before.

Then came more simple questions like, “Did they tell you what could happen (after this type of brain  injury)?”  “What did they say?”

At one point Kelly offers, “It’s got to be one of the hardest things. How do we explain to Gaby that Gabriel Zimmerman has died, that’s gonna be hard, hard… that Ron Barber almost died, that Pam Simon.. it’s a miracle that she survived… she really, truly loves these people.

“How do I explain to her there was a nine-year-old girl who was standing right in front of you , looking up to you, and now she’s gone.  and all the others.. When do you do that?”

I have as many favorite questions as favorite answers.  “How many more days can you sit here and hold her hand.”  “As long as it takes,” he said.  “Will you be on this valedictory (space shuttle) flight? (He hopes his wife will help him decide.)  “Do you want her to go back in congress after this, do you really want her to go back.”

My favorite question was probably the toughest to ask: ” “Do you let yourself think of the fear?”  Notice Sawyer didn’t ask, “Are you ever afraid,”  or “How do you keep strong?”  What I like so much about this question is that it presumes fear. It acknowledges his intelligence.  It frames his optimism.

Oh how I love the art of the interview.   If only we can get a bigger audience to appreciate it, too.

SO WHY DO YO THINK THE ABC NEWS SPECIAL DIDN’T GET A BIGGER AUDIENCE:

  • Viewers had moved on
  • Viewers are now primed to see more emotion than dignity
  • Viewers now expect hand held camera in the ER, in the hospital room
  • Viewers expect more emotion and involvement from the anchor
  • other

PLEASE LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS.

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