As the conventions kick off, big media companies will ply Democrats and Republicans with decadent delights. They have one goal: swaying votes.
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/20/2004 8:00:00 PM
Americans tuning to opening night of the Democratic convention July 26 will see their state delegates in Boston waving signs on cue and breaking into choreographed eruptions of joy for the imminent nomination of John Kerry.
What viewers across the country won't see is some of those delegates knocking back frozen margaritas, lobster quesadillas, and coconut shrimp slathered in orange-chili glaze the night before—courtesy of media giant Time Warner. The cable, programming, and publishing conglomerate—which has a plateful of regulatory goals—is hosting a contingent of state delegates to a late-night pre-convention party Sunday at Tia's, a restaurant with spectacular views of Boston Harbor.
Because network cameras are kept far away, few realize that private extravaganzas like this are a staple of presidential conventions—most of it funded by corporate cash. All contributing companies have legislative issues pending in Washington. They know that helping the national political parties entertain the party faithful will buy them access when the time comes to seek favors.
This year, the number of private affairs is expected to far exceed previous conventions. Independent party planners will throw nearly 50 blowouts costing $100,000 or more each, according to estimates. In addition, there will be a hundred or so less pricey luncheons, receptions, and policy seminars. Those covering the tab for these obligatory blowouts will include some of the country's biggest media companies.
Corporate sponsors don't like details to reach public eyes. At a time when many Americans are without jobs and soldiers are dying in Iraq, video of politicians and executives quaffing champagne and gulping caviar may not appeal to constituents back home.
For lobbyists, the benefits of rubbing elbows with political powers appear to outweigh the risk of bad publicity, however. Not only is Time Warner hosting the private party at Tia's, but it's hosting a bash to welcome the 16,000 journalists covering the GOP convention; the bash is among the conventions' official functions. Time Warner officials declined to say how much they're spending, but party planners estimate the price tag could reach $500,000. At least the company will be spared renting a venue: The bash will be held in Time Warner's giant Manhattan headquarters.
The events are by invitation only, and finding parties isn't easy—unless you've got the right Washington connections. Every four years, each convention distributes a "master list" for scheduling to congressional offices, party officials, and top lobbyists; it details times, dates, locations, and sponsors for all the soirees. In Washington, where status is measured by a person's access to the levers of power, getting hold of "the list" and finagling invites before colleagues will be a summer obsession.
The parties are one reason the New York and Boston economies expect a $150 million boost each, roughly 15% bigger than that the 2000 conventions gave Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
One of the hottest tickets in Boston next month is for the "Caribbean Beach Bash" in honor of Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana. Some 1,600 invitees will gather at the New England Aquarium in Boston Harbor to feast on jerk chicken, swig Red Stripe beer, and rock past midnight to the rhythms of Cajun favorite Buckwheat Zydeco and reggae master Ziggy Marley. A couple dozen or so of the partygoers might even pony up the $20,000 entitling them to one-on-one time with the man of honor during a pre-party reception. Media lobbyists are expected to be in the crowd to raise a glass, or several, to a guy who has pushed legislation to help TV networks and movie studios over the years. Although Breaux is retiring, the lobbyist support sends a message to his colleagues who remain: We support our friends. Estimated cost: $300,000.
Critics say the corporate largess is blatant influence-peddling. "Are we supposed to believe companies are spending that kind of money because they want to honor someone?" asks campaign reformer Sen. John McCain sarcastically. Buying access, he says, "is really what it's all about."
Time Warner, like many media behemoths, has several big policy issues pending before Congress and the FCC. Lawmakers must decide how to regulate cable's fledgling telephone-over-Internet business, new digital channels, and racy cable fare.
But the companies say they sponsor the events to help showcase their hometowns or to support the political process, not to encourage their legislative agendas. A Time Warner spokesman said the company is sponsoring the media bash to be "a good corporate citizen of New York."
Many of the big media companies are still nailing down final plans for venues, menus, and talent. Comcast is a major co-sponsor for a dinner in Boston honoring Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Senate Democratic Whip Harry Reid. Radio conglomerate Clear Channel is acting as a sort of freelance party organizer by offering its concert-promotion business to other sponsors needing to hire bands and book venues.
Lawmakers can also take a few swings of batting practice at Fenway Park in Boston, courtesy of Fox, or participate in NBC's congressional tennis tournament at the U.S. Open's court in Forest Hills, N.Y.
Rather than throw one big blowout on its own, the Consumer Electronics Association, which has a lengthy legislative agenda, is co-sponsoring at least five events at each convention. Officials for the trade group say they paid between $5,000 and $25,000 a pop to co-sponsor events on its convention schedule, including luncheons for House Commerce Committee Republicans in New York and a salute to Senate Democrats in Boston.
Despite the excess of expensive bashes, not all campaign-finance critics decry the private functions. Because the political parties and lawmakers aren't actively raising the cash, they are less likely to feel beholden when sponsors seek favors in Washington. "It's a healthier way to go," says Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center.
The explosion of private-sponsored convention parties is actually fueled by new restrictions on campaign donations. The 2002 campaign-finance-reform law outlawed the huge, unlimited "soft-money" donations that political parties once used to pay for conventions and most of the related events. Now the parties are limited to paying for conventions out of smaller donations of up to $2,000 each.
The job of paying the entertainment tab has fallen to individuals and local "host committees" in Boston and New York, which are composed of local officials and business leaders. Host committees, which have no official ties to the political parties, have reserved thousands of hotel rooms, restaurants, museums, concert halls, and reception sites for the two conventions. So far, New York's committee has raised an estimated $70 million, while Boston's has raised an estimated $40 million.
Most media companies decline to offer details on events they sponsor. Security concerns are one reason. Convention planners want to keep as tight a lid on dates and venues as possible because of the heightened threat of terrorist attacks and because of protesters' vows to disrupt convention events.
Secret, too, is the master list of convention extravaganzas. Although it will soon be making the rounds in Washington, the host committees are loath to admit its existence. Insists Boston 2004 spokesman Wes Everly, "These are private parties with no official ties to the convention, so we don't keep a list."
|Bash for 16,000 journalists||$500,000|
|Concert for 1,500 politicos||$300,000|
|Major party with a band||$100,000|
|Luncheon sole sponsorship||$50,000|
|Generated to date:|
|Sources: Democratic and Republican parties; press reports|
|Parties With a Purpose|
|Some of the media-company gatherings planned for the conventions|
|Event||Sponsor||Wow factor||Washington wish list|
|Sources: Companies, convention organizers, congressional staff, press reports
|Luncheon for Sen. Hillary Clinton||Time Warner||Soiree for 2008 hopeful||Relaxed cable-ownership limits|
|RNC opening party for media||Time Warner||$500k tab|
|DNC opening party for media||Boston Globe/NY Times Co.||$500k tab||TV/newspaper crossownership|
|Sen. Breaux's "Caribbean" bash||Various companies||Ziggy Marley on stage||Multiple media issues|
|MTV essay contest||Viacom||Winners address conventions||Eased TV-ownership limits|
|Dinner for Sens. Daschle, Reid||Comcast, others||Schmoozing with top Dems||No added DTV "must-carry"|
|Concert||Fox News||Live at Fenway Park||Eased TV-ownership limits|
|Concert arrangement||Clear Channel||Need music? Call Lowry Mays||Eased radio-ownership limits|
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