Convention on TV: less is more

July 29, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

If you can't find coverage of the conventions of the nation's two major political parties on television this summer, you've probably lost the remote control.

The conventional wisdom is that the networks have significantly curtailed their convention coverage. But the numbers suggest otherwise.

The networks are taking an increasingly skeptical view of the dueling four-day pageants, which have been minutely scripted to emphasize desired themes and skirt controversy. And they have certainly reduced their coverage from a generation or so ago, when vigorous maneuvering over vice presidential picks and violent street protest infused great drama into the sessions.

But news executives with the networks say they're generally keeping their coverage steady from recent presidential campaigns, despite the mediocre ratings and the high expense of setting up broadcast booths and sending correspondents.

"In a funny way, it's amazing that the networks are on at all," said Al Ortiz, the executive director for convention coverage on CBS. "Prime time real estate is more precious than ever before."

The mathematics of figuring out exactly how many hours the networks intend to air live is complicated and subject to change. As things stand now, ABC will show five hours total on prime time over four nights; CBS will show four hours; NBC will show two and ahalf hours; and PBS, equally available to anyone with a television set, plans 12 hours.

In addition, the networks are likely to devote all or part of their news magazines - such as ABC's "Nightline"; CBS' "48 Hours" and "60 Minutes II"; and NBC's "Dateline" - to issues that arise at the conventions. And many of the morning shows and nightly newscasts will be broadcast from the host arenas.

Local correspondents will appear on air, too.

WJZ (Channel 13) will send Kai Jackson to Philadelphia to cover Marylanders there, although it's not clear what the CBS-owned station will do for the Democrats. WMAR (Channel 2), an ABC affiliate, will send Janet Roach to Philadelphia and Marybeth Marsden to Los Angeles. WBAL-TV (Channel 11), an NBC affiliate, will rely on the Washington reporters of its parent company, Hearst, for news reports of regional importance, while Fox's WBFF (Channel 45) is not planning to use local reporters at all.

This will be the first convention covered by Fox News Channel, which debuted during the summer of 1996.

"Our feeling is that our audience cares about politics," said Kim Hume, Washington bureau chief for Fox News. "To us, this is a big highlight of the political year."

The cable channel will offer 12 hours of live coverage over the four nights, plus several hours of politically oriented programs based from the sites each evening.

Moreover, the explosion of cable television, which can be found in more than 70 percent of U.S. homes, ensures that political junkies can get their gavel-to-gavel fill. C-SPAN has made its name providing unfiltered coverage of public events, while CNN is one of the first places many Americans turn during major news stories.

But cable channels measure their viewers in the hundreds of thousands. The big networks count theirs in the millions.

Despite initial plans to air pre-season football games instead during the Monday nights of the two conventions, ABC News convinced the NFL to start its games earlier those nights. And the network will offer viewers just as many prime-time hours as it did in 1992 and 1996.

Mark Halperin, political director at ABC News, said that the modern presidency depends in part on the ability to communicate on television. Voters "will get a sense of how they will perform on television," he said. "This is a very big way a lot of citizens will decide how to vote."

NBC, whose plans seem to suggest the least coverage of all the major networks, appears to promises the most ambitious reporting. MSNBC, a sibling cable channel, is relying heavily on NBC's big guns to carry the day's events from 7 a.m. each morning to 1 a.m. the next.

NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert will lead the two stations' coverage, although much of it will be built around MSNBC's daily schedule, which includes many talk shows. Although all the major news outlets have beefed up their Internet presence, MSNBC.com is one of the most visited news sites on the web, and it will also feature original reporting by NBC and MSNBC staffers.

There are many indications of the waning importance of politics in people's daily lives. A president can no longer expect to receive live, prime time network coverage for press conferences or addresses to the nation, except in times of war or crisis. A recently released Harvard University survey found that less than half the number of Americans who watched convention coverage in 1996 plan to view it in 2000.

But conventions, along with the presidential debates expected to take place later this fall, offer one of the few chances to see the two people who would lead the nation present their vision of the future. Even when many pundits and citizens dismiss this generation of politicians as elaborately coifed and coached, conventions can help parties set the tone for a campaign.

The networks and cable channels will end up distinguishing themselves, news executives said, not by the minutes they spend on air but by the reporting and insights they offer.

"Our audience isn't coming to us to watch the podium and the stage," CBS' Ortiz said. "They can watch C-SPAN for that. They're watching us for the light we can shed."

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