After decades of cutting back on prime-time political coverage, the networks plan to reverse the trend starting tonight in Denver when the new order of anchors on ABC, NBC and CBS takes to the airwaves for their first national convention.
Trying to rebound from an all-time low in 2004, when each of the networks was roundly criticized for skipping entire nights of convention coverage in favor of rerun entertainment and preseason sports programming, the broadcasters will offer more coverage than at any time since 1996 in an effort to compete with cable TV and the Internet - most notably CNN and MSNBC, and their dot-coms.
While most analysts attribute the networks' about-face to the pursuit of cash rather than the call of conscience, the result is nevertheless good news for viewers and voters. Taken with the extensive coverage offered on 24/7 cable news channels, PBS and an ever-expanding array of Internet and mobile outlets, the beefed-up effort by network TV will mean more coverage available to more Americans during the next two weeks than at any time in convention history.
The networks might be dinosaurs, but as the Olympics reaffirmed, they still measure audiences in the tens of millions - a claim few media can make, including the most successful cable channels. "Are the conventions scripted? Are they planned? Of course, but this year, they're also exciting and historic," says Marc Brustein, executive vice president for special events coverage at ABC News. "This is the first time since 1952 that we haven't had an incumbent president or vice president on either side. What we have is two candidates who bring an enormous amount of excitement to their candidacies. So, maybe we're old-fashioned, but we are going to be there - and on the air more than we were in 2004."
The networks, which will be anchored by Brian Williams, Charles Gibson and Katie Couric, each plan to offer an hour a night starting at 10 Monday through Thursday during both conventions. While that is a far cry from the 50 hours of coverage the networks offered in 1976, it will be the biggest prime-time commitment since 1996, when executives at all three networks took to calling the quadrennial gatherings "coronations" and looking for any excuse to slash coverage.
Not that the networks have come to some new commitment to public service - or that the coronation quotient has changed. But the same network executives who have disparaged the conventions in recent years as staged affairs devoid of news are singing a somewhat different tune this year.
"They didn't suddenly get religion during the last four years - what they got are ratings and profits," says Mark Feldstein, professor of broadcast journalism at George Washington University and a former ABC investigative reporter. "The networks made money off the primary campaigns in 2008 for the first time in many, many elections, and they want to try to continue to cash in."
In July, CBS announced only three nights of coverage before adding tonight to its prime-time plan just two weeks ago. Paul Friedman, a senior vice president at CBS News, acknowledges still having mixed feelings about the extra night of coverage for what he has described as a "nonevent."
"Our job is to cover the news, and there is without a question less and less news at the conventions," says Friedman. "It is an enormous expenditure of money to cover these conventions the way we cover them, and I would rather that we consider whether we should take the money that is shorter and shorter in all media and use it to cover the campaign."
Friedman's explanation as to why his and the other networks are adding rather than subtracting hours this year: "First, I think we were all surprised by the amount of interest in the debates during the primary season, which exceeded our estimates, and I think we're all going on the assumption that there is still a good deal of interest in politics this year."
One of the biggest media stories of the primary season was not the rise of the Internet as many expected, but rather the sudden resurgence of what Friedman referred to as the cables. CNN was the first to "plant its flag" of high-powered, in-depth campaign coverage late last year when it seemed as if the networks could hardly be less interested, according to George Washington's Feldstein. MSNBC and Fox quickly joined the hunt, and everyone else has been playing catch-up with them since.
"We suspected this would be an unbelievable political year, but I don't think any us had any sense how intense the interest would be - to the degree that several million people would come to watch our big events, whether primary coverage or the debates," says David Bohrman, CNN senior vice president in charge of political coverage.