Political conventions: Not really for prime time

With few events of import to report on, networks scale back their coverage

Election 2004

July 26, 2004|By Gerald P. Merrell and David Folkenflik | Gerald P. Merrell and David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Before it was canceled, Walker, Texas Ranger was a mediocre television show that often hovered in the bottom half of the ratings. When the last round of political conventions befell us in 2000, though, the CBS action show still outdrew the network's coverage of the Republican coronation of George W. Bush nearly 2-1.

Four years later, ratings like that suggest the biggest question confronting the Democrats this week in Boston and the GOP next month in New York is: Will anyone be watching?

You won't see much of Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings or Dan Rather on the three major broadcast networks. Each network will devote a scant three hours to each of the conventions, leaving the other 50 hours or so to the likes of MSNBC (where Brokaw will surface periodically), CNN, Fox News, C-SPAN and PBS.

The reason, even political junkies acknowledge, is simple. The political conventions have become boring and predictable, lack spontaneity and are devoid of legitimate news. Since the 1970s, primaries have been the true vehicle for selecting party nominees, with the conventions serving to formalize those decisions.

"It's all so scripted. It's all so packaged," says Dennis McGrath, an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore.

Yet swarms of journalists will still descend upon the two conventions. Fully 15,000 have received credentials, including some from unexpected outlets.

Among those attending are scores of Weblog commentators, including Christopher Rabb for AfroNetizen.com and Dave Barry of the Miami Herald, and correspondents for Comedy Central's news satire The Daily Show, World Wrestling Entertainment, E! Entertainment television, the Spanish-language network Univision, Lifetime cable channel for women and even ESPN2. (ESPN2, a spokesman explains helpfully, will be seeking stories for its morning show, Cold Pizza, probably on such topics as presumed Democratic nominee John Kerry's hobbies of snowboarding and windsurfing and running mate John Edwards' athletic experiences in school.)

Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, calls the conventions mere "pep rallies." The Los Angeles Times is even harsher. In a recent editorial, the newspaper condemned them as relics, adding, "The conventions need to be reinvented. Or killed. It's hard to imagine what could rescue them from meaninglessness."

The glory days

Conventions were once occasions to hash out the direction of the parties. In 1948, a fierce fight erupted over civil rights, leading the late Strom Thurmond and other "Dixiecrats" to abandon the party. In 1964, Ronald Reagan's speech to Republicans signaled the path conservatives would follow for the rest of the century. In 1968, protesters disrupted the Democratic convention in Chicago over the Vietnam War.

But even in that generation, conventions were recognized as primarily pageantry. "It is partly political, partly emotional, partly propaganda, partly a social mechanism, partly a carnival and partly mass hysteria," the late David Brinkley, then of NBC, told viewers. "It can be described as nonsense, and often is. But somehow it works."

ABC News' Ted Koppel hasn't shared Brinkley's affection for the quadrennial affairs. In 1996, the anchor of Nightline marched out of the Republican convention in San Diego before its conclusion, because, he said, conventions had proven irrelevant.

"For us, covering who's elected president is right up there in importance next to covering wars," Koppel's boss, ABC News President David Westin, says now. Yet conventions do not draw large audiences. "The American people have told us pretty resoundingly - four years ago, eight years ago, 12 years ago - they would rather do other things with their time than watch gavel-to-gavel."

In 2000, more than 16 million households tuned to the final night of the Democratic convention. The figure includes all homes in which channels were set to the big three - ABC, CBS, NBC - along with PBS, and cable channels CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Networks saw their audiences drop by half when programs shifted from entertainment or newsmagazines to the convention speeches.

Cable jumps in

This summer, as four years ago, the cable channels will have more extensive programming, though much of the time, Boston's Fleet Center convention hall will serve as a backdrop to such familiar programs as Fox News' O'Reilly Factor, CNN's Crossfire and MSNBC's Hardball.

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