The 1996 GOP convention ain't no convention. It's an awards show with a mean streak.
At least that's the impression one gets from network TV coverage, which has shrunk what used to be a quadrennial showcase for the best and the brightest television journalists to an hourlong nightly Greatest Hits package on the outer cusp of prime time.
What used to be four days of suspense, or at least four days of unpredictable mayhem, has become an hour of carefully-orchestrated and timed speeches. What used to be a chance to watch the unwieldy American political party machine at work has become a homogeneous exercise in praising candidates and bashing incumbents. What used to be open-ended coverage that ran pretty much all day and stopped only when the delegates went home at night has become a race to see which network can sign off closest to 11 p.m.
It's become the Oscar telecast, with big stars given the chance to address an adoring audience, young guns given their big break and a grizzled old warhorse given a lifetime achievement award in appreciation of all the good service he's rendered.
Most tellingly of all, the convention is being dominated by offstage managers constantly urging speakers to cut their remarks short, lest the whole thing run overtime.
Or, in the case of Gen. Colin Powell Monday night, speakers constantly pointing at their watch in a vain attempt to get the adoring crowd to cut its applause short.
Already, some network news types are grousing -- not because the convention is spending so little time on the tube, but because they wonder why so many resources are being expended on what is little more than a pep rally. Viewers, too, seem less-than-anxious to watch the parading GOP minions; ratings are down an average of 20 percent from 1992.
That's not the way things used to be.
Although it's been decades since a convention was convened without the presidential nominee already decided, there's always been a glorious unrehearsed quality to conventions, a sense that anything could happen and generally would. That's what made the conventions good TV -- and why TV journalists flocked to them like swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano.
In fact, almost every convention year has had a signal event that found its way into the collective memory: Adlai Stevenson leaving the choice of his running-mate up to the delegates in 1956, when Estes Kefauver narrowly defeated John F. Kennedy; NBC's John Chancellor being arrested at the 1964 GOP convention; the Democrats bullying their way through Chicago -- and out of the White House -- in 1968; Jimmy Carter practically chasing Ted Kennedy around the podium in 1980, pleading with his erstwhile and bitter rival to shake his hand for the TV cameras.
For years, conventions always had at least one surprise up their sleeves -- the identity of the vice presidential candidate, which would usually be revealed, with much fanfare, only after the top of the ticket had been chosen.
But Ronald Reagan helped take away that trump card in 1976 by naming Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker as his potential running mate well in advance of the delegates' gathering. Reagan lost the nomination, and the conventions, whenever a candidate has followed his lead, have lost much of their suspense.
This year may prove a watershed, as the networks finally seem to be realizing the extensive coverage traditionally lavished on conventions has become silly.
CBS' Lesley Stahl used everything short of track shoes and gym shorts to keep up with Jack Kemp as he entered the convention floor Tuesday night, then realized she had nothing really to ask him. ABC's Peter Jennings seemed to be stifling a laugh whenever he introduced an audience of just plain folks twisting knobs designed to immediately measure their reactions to the speeches -- an example of technology gone awry if ever there was one. NBC's Tom Brokaw referred to the GOP's "all-star revue."
What enthusiasm the network correspondents can generate often seems forced, as when an ABC reporter breathlessly gushed that he'd never seen anything like the filmed tribute to Ronald Reagan that played Monday night, or when Dan Rather assured his audience that New York's Rep. Susan Molinari had given a "very-well delivered keynote address" and "there's no truth to the rumor that Molinari means 'perky' in Italian."
In fact, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the gushing network correspondents from the gushing -- and avowedly partisan -- anchors of the Republican-controlled GOP-TV airing on Pat Robertson's Family Channel.
But most telling of all was Ted Koppel, who announced on-air Tuesday night that he and his "Nightline" crew were packing up and leaving San Diego, promising to return if any real news happened.
One suspects he won't be back.
Pub Date: 8/15/96