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Maybe GOP needed life line

Newsless Philly convention coverage hits airwaves like bag of wet cement 8/06/2000 08:00:00 PM Eastern

A nation of television viewers was riveted last week as a select group representing America came together for the next step in the selection process determining which candidate would emerge victorious.

But enough about Survivor.

For the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, viewers on broadcast and cable networks, to paraphrase American philosopher Lawrence Berra, stayed away in droves.

Maybe what the convention needed was a life line. Not even segments like the appearance of WWF star "The Rock" could pump up combined ratings beyond an average night of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Wednesday night's coverage peaked with a total of 12.6 million households on seven networks. Millionaire averaged nearly 14 million per episode the previous week, according to Nielsen Media Research. Thursday night's numbers were not available at press time, but a spokeswoman at Nielsen said they expected figures similar to Wednesday's.

The bulk of the audience went to broadcast networks during the 10 o'clock news. The rest gave cable news networks a boost, but nothing compared to a plane crash or a bombing. CNN, MSNBC and FOX News Channel all doubled their audiences from recent weeks, but only FOX News Channel maintained at least some momentum throughout the coverage, moving from a 0.9 on Monday to a 1.0 on both Tuesday and Wednesday, and up slightly in household numbers, (525,000 Tuesday versus 528,000 Wednesday).

Viewers abandoned MSNBC, despite the star presence of Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert. The NBC cable network did a 0.3/271,000 on Wednesday, down 9% in households from Tuesday, and 28% from Monday, and third among the three cable news networks.

FOX News Channel was jubilant with its solid second-place finish to perennial cable news leader CNN, and credited its year-round political programming slate for its performance.

Rival MSNBC did not disagree, dismissing notions of disappointment. The ratings, said MSNBC spokesman Mark O'Connor, "are exactly what we expected. Everybody's down across the board. It's the nature of the story; there's no news coming out of here. We are not a political talk channel, like FOX News. That is not what we do primarily."

Similarly, CNN said it knew the numbers would be down from 1996, but was pleased with the bounce over its regular ratings-which are also down. "We never said we thought the convention would be exciting," said a spokeswoman, "but that doesn't mean the coverage has to be boring. We said we could make our coverage newsworthy and I think we did. "

Gains were clear at some networks. C-SPAN documented its status as the network of record with its own daily tallies comparing the time spent by networks covering the official proceedings. Not surprisingly, C-SPAN-which kept cameras on the podium at all times-easily outscored the other networks, which spent much of its coverage time analyzing convention business, what there was of it.

"Every news organization has its own agenda," said C-SPAN's Ellenwood. "Ours is to be the network of record." For the first time at a convention, C-SPAN ran the pool feeds, spreading more than a dozen cameras around the convention hall, including one over Ellenwood's shoulder that showed viewers some of the C-SPAN operation.

The convention may have lacked the suspense of Survivor, Big Brother, or even Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, but it ran with a precision that would embarrass by contrast the reportedly less-disciplined Democrats. "The Republican National Committee is very good at being scripted and at following the script," said Gary Ellenwood, director of C-SPAN field operations. "We go over line by line of the script with them," he said.

"The Republicans have been pretty good for a number of cycles," said FOX News Channel executive producer for politics Marty Ryan. "If somebody's supposed to speak for 10 minutes."

Trying to squeeze political programming into network schedules proved occasionally problematic. At ABC, the network left Colin Powell's Monday speech early in order to sign off at 11 p.m. ET. Sen. John McCain, the following night, was through by 11, but when vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney ran over the next night, ABC stayed with the speech. And CBS, having pre-empted Laura Bush's speech Monday night for a repeat of a 48 Hours medical story, said it would revise its coverage for the Democrats, and the network's non-convention prime time programming will be more compatible with the convention theme.

Anchor Dan Rather, political correspondent Bob Schieffer, and others were critical of the network for not carrying enough of Bush's speech.

TV seemed to follow the scripts as well. Monday night, when the then-presumptive candidate's wife, Laura Bush spoke about education, cameras at several networks seemed to find every child in the large hall-including one who was sleeping. And when retired General Colin Powell spoke about a more inclusive party, the faces that appeared on screen suggested that Powell's dream was already a reality. even though an Associated Press survey revealed that only 4% of the delegates were black.

"We like to get a diversity of faces in the audience," said a network director. "And we look for good reactions. We want as interesting cutaways as possible."

The epitaph on W.C Fields' grave ("All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia'') might have sized up the media attitude about the newsless convention there. ABC took Fields' joke to the next level: The network controlled its coverage from New York, not Philly, an approach enabled by fiber optic technology.

The decision saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in transportation, housing and related costs, said ABC executive producer for special events Marc Burstein, and was "cheaper, quicker and more efficient," according to executive director Roger Goodman.

ABC also departed from conventional convention coverage by putting Peter Jennings on a floor-level studio in front of a chroma-key screen with a convention view instead of a real view from a skybox. The move, which the network disclosed to viewers daily, allowed Jennings and producers to be closer to the floor and gain greater mobility and flexibility.

At Comedy Central, ratings for The Daily Show were up about 50% with Jon Stewart and his team of crack faux journalists mining the convention for satire. Some of Stewart's scores included an interview with Sen. McCain, which started seriously but quickly dissolved into voice-overed thoughts of Stewart congratulating himself on his savvy and McCain marveling at Stewart's idiocy. Bob Dole played too, posing as a Comedy pundit Wednesday night when Stewart interrupted him for breaking news from the floor. It was Vance Degeneres with Elizabeth Dole, telling her husband to have the bags packed and in front of the hotel by midnight, "and not a minute later."

In an unseen moment, Presidential parents George and Barbara Bush blew off Nickelodeon's reporter when he tried to get an interview with the former first couple. Josh Peck, 13-year-old star of the network's original movie, Snow Day, waited for two hours in the press area to meet the couple while nearby Secret Service agents encouraged him, according to observers. When the Bushes finally came out and Peck asked for an interview, the senior George Bush asked where Peck was from. When the youngster said Nickelodeon, observers say Bush shook his head waved the youngster off.

Dole, the reputed curmudgeon among politicians, paused for Peck's questions, which included what advice Dole had for kids who wanted to get into politics.

"Start early," he said.

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