Political conventions: Not really for prime time

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

ABC News is offering comprehensive coverage on a variety of new platforms. For 14 weeks beginning today, the network is launching a new service called ABC News Now. It will be available online to consumers who subscribe to certain broadband services, on television (but only in selected markets, not yet including Baltimore, and then only for viewers who receive digital television signals), and even on cell phone screens for a monthly fee. A tiny fraction of Americans is expected to see this coverage. But network executives say it could serve as the model for the next wave of media expansion.

For people who actually attend the conventions, it would seem as though the media still considers them monumentally important. The thousands of reporters on hand in Boston this week and New York next month will be recording every speech, analyzing the party platforms (even though candidates aren't wedded to them) and writing about who one-upped whom.

CNN is cutting significantly the number of journalists and support personnel at the convention in Boston compared to past levels - but there will still be a lot of people around. Four years ago, the channel sent 500 staffers to each of the conventions.

"That seems a little bit insane," said David Bohrman, Washington bureau chief for CNN, who will be supervising his channel's coverage from its Atlanta headquarters. "There's the sense in the news organization that everyone who's good is entitled to be at the convention." Viewers should see little difference, he says.

What's happening?

And they're all there to cover - what, exactly? Pre-convention reporting has been reduced to such vital issues as what time slot action star/governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will get with the GOP, or the fact that Ron Reagan, son of the former Republican president, will address the Democrats, or the presence of reporters for Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera ("Osama Television" to its critics within the Bush administration).

Observers say both parties are more interested in scoring public relations points rather than embracing an open debate on issues.

"They are really coronations now," says Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations and co-founder of the Washington-based think tank Center for Advancement of Public Policy. She says public funding of the conventions should be scrapped. This year, according to a report by the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University, taxpayers will ante up $100 million to help defray their costs.

"We ought to rethink whether the public needs to be involved in the events," Burk says.

"The convention is the one and only time when all of the various leaders and notables of the party get together. Without that, you wouldn't really have a national party," says Ginsberg, the Hopkins scholar.

Even knocked from prime time, even largely banished to cable, media attention to the conventions may seem excessive. But Ginsberg advocates perspective.

"Look at all the coverage of sports and entertainment," he says, recalling the seemingly endless stream of stories devoted to Janet Jackson's flash of a breast at this year's Super Bowl. "The question becomes, coverage compared to what?"

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