Broadcast Goes 'Convention Lite'
Anchors and viewers must turn to cable for in-depth coverage
By David Bianculli -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/24/2008 8:00:00 PM
It's hard to blame the broadcast networks for scaling back, in recent years, from gobs of primetime (and beyond) national convention coverage to a paltry hour or so each night. It isn't just because 24-hour cable outlets are there to take up the slack. It's because, as convention planners took the TV audience into account as its primary target, TV wasn't as interested in playing anymore. Things got dull.
Television coverage of national political conventions used to be fascinating, back when cameras and reporters merely captured and recorded the action and the occasional chaos. Then the political parties began to package and control the events as made-for-TV propaganda shows featuring more controlled images. It made for much less compelling television.
But the 2008 Democratic National Convention from Denver during the final week of this month ought to make for very exciting television. With both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton scheduled to speak, and with tensions between their camps said to be running high, there's bound to be excitement.
Even so, the major broadcast networks are limiting themselves to an hour of primetime coverage per night. The networks have other, more pressing things to present this week, such as the latest edition of The Greatest American Dog on CBS. And Wipeout on ABC. And America's Toughest Jobs, the first new show of the fall season, on NBC.
Pardon me, but doesn't the President of the United States qualify as one of America's toughest jobs? And if so, isn't TV coverage of the ceremonial process putting forth the major candidates for that position worth a few hours of primetime every 48 months?
One irony regarding the way TV's convention coverage has evolved is that the parties, by striving to present better images of themselves, now get less airtime. (Except on PBS, which offers coverage and analysis beginning at 8 p.m. ET nightly.) Another irony is that the highly paid, highly visible network anchors and correspondents suffer the same fate.
Top-tier commercial network broadcasters are making themselves less relevant with this approach, as they then scramble to go the same place more viewers do: cable, or late-night. You can bet you'll be seeing lots of Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw on MSNBC. And whatever Charles Gibson doesn't get to say in ABC's one-hour nightly convention coverage, he and his colleagues can say on Nightline.
And this is Katie Couric's first chance to shine at a convention as the flagship anchor for CBS, yet she's likely to get less screen time than any of her counterparts. There are fewer places for her, and her CBS colleagues, to be utilized. Where will Couric, Bob Schieffer and Jeff Greenfield go when their truncated primetime commentary on CBS is through? I'm not sure CBS has a good answer.
But I do. Take full advantage of the cable universe and the 24-hour outlets that weren't around when police and protesters clashed outside Chicago's Democratic National Convention in 1968.
C-SPAN, which provides unadulterated gavel-to-gavel coverage, is the most valuable resource during any convention week. It begins training a lens on each night's action, or lack of it, at 6 p.m.
CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, TV One—it's all out there. Also out there, starting Tuesday night at 11 p.m. ET, is Comedy Central's special convention week Daily Show coverage with Jon Stewart. That's high on my must-see list this week, as is the return of Real Time With Bill Maher to HBO, Friday night at 11 p.m. ET, with his first live edition in months. Just in time.
You may think lumping comedians in with politics is doing a disservice to one or the other, but there's a lot to learn when they tackle the same topics. On occasion, they even share the same stage. Four years ago, on the final night of the Republican National Convention in New York, Joe Scarborough hosted a live wrapup on MSNBC that culminated with conservative actor Ron Silver debating policy issues with famed hand puppet/pop culture commentator Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. And yes—somehow, it was fascinating television in its own right. Only in America.
And that's the way to approach these conventions as a TV viewer. The broadcast networks may be offering less, but we should consider it our duty to watch more, and listen to different voices, in a true TV democracy. We're not likely, in this more controlled media age, to see something matching the likes of CBS reporter Dan Rather being manhandled by security forces (or “thugs,” as anchor Walter Cronkite called them) on the convention floor at Chicago in 1968, or NBC's John Chancellor, at the same brutal venue, signing off as “This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody.” Or hear, at least on broadcast TV, the leisurely, entertaining banter that in 1956 made stars—and eventual nightly news partners—of NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.
But if we aren't there, and if TV isn't, we'll never know what we're missing.
I am surprised that the broadcast networks will even go as far as to present one hour a night per network of each convention. I had fully expected ABC, CBS, and NBC to broadcast only the acceptance speeches of the Presidential and Vice-Presidential nominees.
Come Election Night in November, I'd be very surprised if ABC, CBS, and NBC go with "wall-to-wall" election-night coverage. I expect those three networks will only have brief updates of projections and early returns every half-hour until 9:30 ot 10 P.M. Eastern time; then an hour or hour-and-a-half of coverage from 9:30 or 10 until 11; and breaking-into regular late-night programming to carry the losing candidate's concession speech and the winning candidate's victory speech. The cable news channels may be the only place to see wall-to-wall election coverage on the night of November 4th.
On Election Night in November, I also don't expect Fox's broadcast network to simulcast Fox News Channel election-night coverage, as they've done the last couple of elections. I wouldn't be surprised if Fox's broadcast network instead runs a "sneak previews auditons" episode of "American Idol 8", again with two or three election updates intersperseed through the program. Such a tactic might actually allow Fox to dominate prime-time that night.
Joseph Gallant - 8/25/2008 1:49:00 PM EDT
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