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Big Trick

As the broadcast networks retreat from conventions, cable attempts a magic act: getting viewers to watch 7/18/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

For next week's Democratic Convention in Boston, NBC News will fill four skyboxes overlooking the Fleet Center convention floor, operate 16 cameras, and summon an army of technicians to deliver every ounce of action during the four-night spectacle.

But viewers hoping to check out the wall-to-wall coverage won't see much on their local NBC station. Instead, cable net MSNBC will be the showcase. Like other broadcasters, NBC is offering only three hours of coverage of the convention—about the same spartan schedule as in 2000.

Where the broadcast networks see a costly obligation, cable news networks see opportunity. Indeed, nearly half of all Americans say they are more interested in this presidential election than they were four years ago, according to the Pew Research Center. Now, more than ever, with broadcast coverage pared to the bone, cable networks are showcasing the conventions and promoting them like blockbuster miniseries. MSNBC, CNN and Fox News hope to capture news-hungry political junkies and promote their big-name talent. High-definition startup HDNet will let viewers see candidates, warts and all. Of course, MTV and Comedy Central will put their spin on the action, too.

Searching For Spice

Already, Fox and CNN are going head-to-head in promos touting their upcoming coverage. CNN calls itself the "Convention Headquarters," a moniker Fox mocks in its own promos tweaking CNN for being late in announcing John Edwards as the Democratic running mate. MSNBC is touting its record, lauding political-team reporter Andrea Mitchell for breaking the Edwards story.

Scoring a convention night of hot ratings for any of the cable networks would be akin to pulling a rabbit out of a hat. But they're seeking more than the spike in ratings such events generate: a shot at building a permanent following among newshounds that fit in the channels' demographic.

Mark Lukasiewicz, executive producer of NBC political coverage, hopes that bringing NBC news stars into MSNBC's coverage will create new fans for Chris Matthews, who is anchoring the MSNBC's convention team. "Our key weapons," he says, "are Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert."

MSNBC plans to add some late-night pizzazz covering Ron Reagan and Joe Scarborough as they crash convention parties on Convention After Hours.

Fox News Channel is mounting a convention offensive, too, boosting its coverage time 50% over the 2000 conventions. Marty Ryan, executive producer of political coverage, believes Fox gave the last conventions short shrift. "Last time, we didn't know how important the election would be, but now, with war in Iraq, the fight against terrorism and the direction of the economy all uncertain, this could be one of the most important elections in our lifetimes."

Nearly all of Fox News' big names will base their shows at the conventions, including Greta Van Susteren, Hannity & Colmes, and Bill O'Reilly. "We already have the strongest prime time news schedule," Ryan says. "So we'll try to cover the conventions with our regular programming as much as possible—the guys and gals who do it for us every day."

Lead anchor Brit Hume will also offer special reports and cut into the regular shows with breaking reports and speeches. The Fox broadcast network is providing no live coverage at all but will offer two hours of preconvention coverage on Sunday.

The networks realized years ago the declining news value of the conventions—ratings have slipped over past conventions even as air time became shorter . Given that each party's presidential nominee is already known, coming up with something fresh and newsworthy is a particularly acute challenge these days.

MTV has hired cybergossip Ana Marie Cox, of Washington-based wonkette.com,
a blog comprising the hottest D.C. dirt, to do on-air and online work. The Viacom network will also hold an essay contest for viewers, with winners to speak at each convention. At Comedy Central, producers were startled to learn they had received floor passes—ripe with opportunity. C-SPAN is perhaps the only choice for hard-core political junkies, transmitting live convention-floor action without as much commentary.

Analyzing the Pageant

C-SPAN, of course, is offering live, gavel-to-gavel coverage; after each speaker finishes, on-demand video will be available in the "Recent Programs" section of its Web site.

Given the choreographed nature of the conventions, is there any news? "To some extent, the conventions are pageant, and very little news opens up," says David Bohrman, CNN VP of news and production. "But it's the first real opportunity for the voters to get a sense of the nominees and the party, and we can take advantage of the time we have to give voters a sense of what they're about."

CNN plans to devote nearly all of its evening schedule to the convention. Very little of it, however, will be slated for speeches on the convention floor. The network will devote only the 10-11 p.m. ET slot to action at the podium. That leaves little beyond the introductory and acceptance speeches for nominees John Kerry and running mate John Edwards. The rest will be devoted to interviews with candidates, rivals, and pundits by CNN regulars Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, and Larry King, all of whom are basing their shows in Boston next week and in New York when the Republicans hold their convention the last week in August.

If the cable news networks aren't careful, they could blow an opportunity, warns Frank Sesno, professor of public policy and communication at George Mason University. Cable networks need to "show maturity," he says. "As the public becomes more dependent on them, cable channels can't just be chatterboxes anymore." Will the candidates' ideas and speeches breathe, he asks, or will the "brutal crush of ratings and the desperate grab for audience lead them to give us so much spin and three-ring circus that the main act won't shine through?"

Unlike the preference for live TV on cable, the broadcast networks are planning as much of their coverage as possible ahead of time, according to CBS's Marcy McGinnis. "We don't want to make too many decisions on the fly," she explains, "or it won't look well-produced."

Like the other Big Three broadcast networks, CBS is devoting only one hour of live prime time coverage during three of the Democratic Convention's four nights. A similar schedule is planned for the GOP a month later.

On CBS, the Dan Rather-hosted series What Does It Mean to You?, examining the candidates' positions on taxes, the Iraq war and other issues, will air during the convention, and footage previously aired on CBS Evening News
will be replayed as part of convention analysis.

PBS will offer traditional gavel-to-gavel coverage of both conventions, with Jim Lehrer anchoring PBS's nightly three-hour prime time broadcasts.

Digital Options

MSNBC, standing in for NBC, will offer three hours a night of live coverage plus another three hours of nightly analysis and coverage of the late-night partying available to delegates and lawmakers. "We made a judgment that the time devoted to prime time broadcast live coverage in 2000 was about right," he says. "Unlike other networks', our audience flows from our broadcast programming to our cable and back again." Viewers who want continuous coverage from convention anchors Brokaw and Russert can follow them from NBC evening news to MSNBC and back to NBC at 10 p.m.

ABC is creating a special digital channel to provide convention and campaign through the Nov. 2 election (see page 26), even as it cuts an hour from the weekly live coverage in 2000. ABC anchor Peter Jennings, in addition to the prime time coverage, will anchor almost 10 hours per convention on the digital channel, which will also be streamed on the Internet.

Given the virtually nonexistent audience for digital channels today—only a few million Americans actually have DTV sets—rivals called the move a publicity stunt. But ABC says rivals miss the point: Such a niche election channel could lead to broadcasters' return to convention coverage in a big way. Says ABC Washington lobbyist Preston Padden, "When Ted Turner started CNN, there weren't many viewers either."

November