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Fox, Flags and Al-Jazeera

A report from the GOP fest in New York 9/05/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The folks at Fox News howl when critics call them Republican-friendly. But the Republicans are certainly friendly to them. When every network turned to cover the convention, Fox News beat not just the other cable news networks but every single broadcast network, as well.

Fox News execs bristle at the suggestion that Republican viewers are simply turning to the home team.

A beaming Bill Shine, vice president of production and programming, counters that the network has simply become the home for election junkies. "We really do think we're the channel for politics," he says. After eight years in the game. "When a big story comes along, people tune in, they watch us and they stay longer."

Final numbers for President Bush's speech at Republican National Convention (RNC) weren't in at press time. But, on the other nights, when the broadcasters covered the prime speech hour—10 p.m. ET—Fox News approached 6 million viewers, passing NBC and dramatically beating ABC and CBS. For the full night's coverage, Fox News trounced CNN and MSNBC. The network was so triumphant it didn't even bother to berate archrival CNN, which fell to third place behind MSNBC Tuesday night.

A little college calculus may have helped NBC producers plan their networks' convention coverage this summer. Most producers at other networks had their hands full planning for only one channel, while NBC's news division stretched its production resources across four. "The other networks put it in 'Drive' and let off the brake," says Mark Lukasiewicz, executive producer for Decision 2004. "We were doing air-traffic control."

NBC dedicated 400 people to each convention, about the same as CNN. Besides coordinating NBC Nightly News, Today and one hour of nightly convention coverage, the mix also included MSNBC's all-day slate of talk shows and live coverage, CNBC's demands for "as much camera time as we would give them," and Telemundo's nightly coverage.

The coordination required 35 producers from all four networks to meet at midday and defend their pitches for camera and booth time. Each day's requests for production time were due to Lukasiewicz and executive director Phil Alongi at 7 p.m. the night before. "I haven't worked for CNBC this much in my entire career," Lukasiewicz says.

To help entertain Republican faithful, the National Association of Broadcasters and 20 other corporate sponsors paid for a private performance by country superstar Clint Black at Manhattan concert hall Roseland. The "Good Ol' Texas Honky Tonk" honored House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton and the rest of the state's congressional delegation. Unlike many of the suit-clad guests packing the house, Barton at least got in the spirit of the night, donning jeans, cowboy hat and a shirt sewn from the flag of the Lone Star State.

Steve Schirripa, who plays Bobby Bacala on The Sopranos and is temping as a convention reporter for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, had one question for his producer as he and partner "Ross The Intern" Matthews stepped up for an ambush interview of Fox News talk host Bill O'Reilly: "Who is this guy?" Told simply that his target was "Bill O'Reilly," Schirripa seemed to register no recognition. Not that he needed to know the combative conservative to deliver such hardballs as "Paper or plastic?" Still, O'Reilly tried to bail out when he realized Schirripa and Matthews didn't have a clue. "Jay, save me from these people!" he pleaded into the camera.

When the New York City Police put out an APB looking for a suspect who beat a cop outside the Republican Convention, NY1 realized it had video of the perp from a photo released by police. NY1 Noticias, the Spanish-language version of the local news network, caught the assailant on tape later that night, as he wasn't bright enough to leave the scene of the crime (and, in fact, he was caught the next night wearing the same outfit in the same area). "The policemen were giving high fives when they recognized him on the tape, and they said they would give us a plaque," says NY1 General Manager Steve Paulus. "I told them to skip the plaque and just give us the exclusive when they catch him." Unfortunately, the exclusive never happened.

Learning from their rivals' mistake, RNC managers said they were happy to let Arab news channel Al-Jazeera fix its banner to its booth overlooking the convention floor. In Boston, Democratic organizers removed the signs. The move cost John Kerry a public-relations black eye in the Arab world, where the next president must explain America's policies on terrorism and other problems plaguing the region. "They are a legitimate news organization, and they're playing on the same field as the other big boys," says an RNC spokeswoman.

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