Unsaturated coverage The networks are cutting costs

February 17, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

TOMORROW NIGHT if you're watching network television and get up for a snack during prime time, you might not know there is a primary vote going on in New Hampshire.

That's how things have changed in the way network TV is covering presidential elections. "From the snows of New Hampshire" used to mean prime-time specials with anchor teams broadcasting from the state, an army of reporters at various campaign headquarters "keeping watch," and pollsters and pundits trying to be the first to call the race and tell us what it all meant.

Not this year. It's widely known that the networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS -- have been cutting back bit by bit on political coverage since 1986. But so far this year, the cuts have been more than bit by bit, especially during the nightly news.

And, although cable channels CNN and C-SPAN have expanded their coverage, it's not enough to offset what has been lost. Each night, people in 27 million households watch the evening newscasts on ABC, NBC and CBS. The largest combined audience for any half-hours of news on CNN and C-SPAN is fewer than a million households.

"How have the three broadcast networks been covering the election this year compared to 1988? Hardly at all is the answer," said Andrew Tyndall, author of the Tyndall Report newsletter, which monitors network coverage of national politics.

To begin with, consider the numbers: The amount of time during nightly newscasts spent on political coverage by ABC, NBC and CBS combined in the week Feb. 3 through Feb. 7, for example, is down 63 percent from the same week in 1988 -- 25 minutes vs. 72 minutes. Overall, the drop is 59 percent from 610 minutes in 1988 to 250 minutes so far in campaign '92, according to Tyndall's weekly "Campaign Countdown."

And there are behind-the-scenes decisions. ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN have been pooling pictures in New Hampshire in a trial arrangement -- not just press conference pictures, but the pictures you see on the nightly news of the candidates campaigning throughout the state as well. The networks and CNN also have decided to permanently go with pooled election returns and exit poll data, a collaboration which was first tried experimentally in 1990.

And then there is the nature of the coverage itself. Arguably, the only story in New Hampshire that the networks have shown any sustained enthusiasm for is the ongoing Bill Clinton soap opera of whom he did or did not sleep with and whether he did or did not dodge the draft during the Vietnam war.

Network executives acknowledge the drop in coverage measured by Tyndall's report. But they say there are good reasons for it: less interesting races in Iowa and New Hampshire, CBS having put most of its resources into covering the Olympics, political news being dealt with on shows other than the nightly news -- like "Nightline" or the new overnight shows.

Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson State University who has written extensively about how TV covers elections, said there are varying degrees of validity to each of those reasons. "But I'm not sure they account for all of it. With the budget cutbacks at the networks, one can infer that money is a factor, too," Vatz said.

While network executives admit money for political coverage this year is tight or that budgets have, in fact, been cut, they deny viewers are being shortchanged.

"There's this myth that networks have cut back on political coverage because of budget," said Hal Bruno, political director at ABC. "Everybody is very cost conscious. Nobody's going to waste any money -- absolutely not. But there isn't one single thing that we want to do in political coverage that we can't do."

Lane Venardos and Bill Wheatley, the people in charge of political coverage at CBS and NBC, said much the same.

"I have fewer dollars to spend," Venardos said. "But I defy anyone to see it on the screen. What the dollars mean is that we're doing more pooling and we're being more careful than we have in the past. . . . We saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by not going to Iowa."

Venardos said CBS did not go to Iowa because "there was no story there," with favorite son U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin in the race. But, Venardos admitted, even if there had been a story in Iowa, the network would have cut back "because of the Olympics."

Venardos acknowledged that CBS also has cut back in New Hampshire. For example, in 1988, the network sent 200 technical staffers for primary coverage; this year, there are 24. Also, Dan Rather was on-site -- but not this year. "The reason we are not anchoring in New Hampshire is simply the Olympics again. But the others [ABC and NBC] are not anchoring in New Hampshire either. And that's a cost-saving measure."

Wheatley said NBC is saving money by not anchoring from the state, but unlike ABC, CBS and PBS, his network will be offering a prime-time special tomorrow.

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