The traditional networks -- CBS, NBC and ABC -- are planning cut-to-the-bone coverage of this week's Democratic National Convention. But that doesn't mean there will be less TV coverage for Bill Clinton & Co. in New York starting today.
In fact, there will be more overall convention coverage than ever before. Much of it will be different from what anyone is familiar with. And some traditional analysts have already started mocking it. But it promises to be more relevant and inclusive than what's gone before. And it's definitely plugged into larger forces of change in media and society.
The buzz in convention coverage is about cable raising its game to the next level. In 1988, the party gatherings were already called "the cable conventions," because CNN was the only network offering gavel-to-gavel coverage. But this year, CNN and C-SPAN's blanket coverage is going to be joined by in-the-convention-hall efforts from MTV, the Nostalgia Channel, Comedy Central, Black Entertainment Television (BET) and other highly targeted cablecasters offering coverage focused for the concerns of their niche audiences.
Some applaud the development.
"I think anything that draws more people into the political process and makes them aware of the issues and the candidates is a positive," Bob Furnad, executive vice president of CNN, told a group of TV critics gathered in Los Angeles for the fall preview press tour.
But others disagree, like an older critic who asked Furnad if having Mustaine cover the convention for MTV doesn't "say something terrible about what's happening."
What's happening is pretty simple, according to Tom Hannon, CNN's political director: "As the networks have retrenched in terms of news coverage, it's opened up the possibilities for not only CNN, but C-SPAN, BET and a lot of the cable channels to step in and fill the need."
Here's how they'll be trying to do that for their viewers this week.
"We'll be covering the conventions in our usual unconventional way," said MTV Vice President Judy McGrath. "All week, Tabitha Soren will be filing live reports from Madison Square Garden, and David Mustaine, of the rock band Megadeth, will supply commentary [from the convention floor].
"We'll also examine the process from the inside by following the youngest delegate, an 18-year-old from Georgia. And we're opening the doors of our 'Hangin' With MTV' [a variety show that airs from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. each day] set a few blocks away to encourage the delegates to join the audience."
Michael E. Marcovsky, CEO of the Nostalgia Network, which is targeted at viewers aged 50 and older, said, "We're not going to be providing gavel-to-gavel coverage. Rather, our correspondents will be getting the inside stories on issues of particular concern to older Americans that the other networks tend to overlook."
"I will not ask the candidates about their sex lives," said Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who is working the convention floor for Nostalgia along with former NBC reporter Jim Hartz. "I want to know about the issues that are of concern to this population. Of course, I'm going to do a little bit with my particular smile, but I'm interested in the issues."
Some of the most ambitious coverage will be anchored by Franken on Comedy Central under the banner "Indecision '92."
"We are going to be doing two hours of live coverage each night [from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.]," said Franken, who originated "SNL's" popular "Weekend Update" feature. "That's about twice as much as any of the major networks are doing, which I think is fitting in an era where the wall between news and entertainment has been eaten away."
Screenwriter and actor Buck Henry ("What's Up, Doc?") and comedian Joy Behar will be floor reporters. Roy Blount Jr., Christopher Hitchens (The Nation), Joe Queenan (Spy), Richard Stengel (Time) and Jim Hightower, the wise-cracking Texas populist, will also be part of the coverage, according to Franken.
But what the comedy channel did with its State of the Union coverage and what it plans to do this week is actually part of a profound and not-much-understood process called "oppositional readings" by media scholars. Virtually all of us do oppositional readings. For example, when we respond to something on TV that strikes us as particularly phony by talking back to the TV and mocking what we see, we are doing such a "reading." Young viewers and members of minority groups do it most of all in reaction to the dominant ideology of mainstream media.
Each of the new cable convention efforts is trying for the same thing: to deliver specific information targeted to the needs and interests of its audience. As the channels become "more full-service," in the words of one MTV executive, their viewers will have less need to return to the traditional networks for news. The new multichannel TV universe is the industry's adaptation to multicultural America. It's the present and future. White, male, network hegemony is the past.
Personally, I welcome it and say we ought to give Dr. Ruth and Dave Mustaine a chance. NBC is acting as if it invented TV journalism because it found an even cheaper way to deal with convention coverage than simply cutting back. It's teaming up with MacNeil/Lehrer and PBS and, in effect, benefiting from the grants and tax dollars that fund the latter's coverage. I have a hard time getting excited about any coverage that features Maria Shriver -- as NBC's does with her as podium correspondent. The last time I checked Shriver's journalistic credentials they weren't any better than Dr. Ruth's.
NBC Entertainment, meanwhile, seems to think cable has a pretty good idea and has decided to imitate it. Jay Leno will have comedian Paula Poundstone covering the convention for "The Tonight Show" starting tonight, the network announced late last week.
CNN has the right attitude about its new cable colleagues.
"The more the merrier," Hannon said.
"As for me, I neither feel slighted nor threatened by this development," CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw added when asked whether he thought the presence of Mustaine and Dr. Ruth trivialized political coverage.
"But you haven't heard Dr. Ruth yet," the questioner shot back.
"Well, for one, I'd like to hear the candidates respond to questions from Dr. Ruth about sexual dysfunction."