The Democrats closed the first full day of their nominating convention last week with a virtuoso performance by a slick huckster trying to sell his audience a bill of goods before skipping town.
But the cast of The Music Man could only be seen on C-SPAN's podium-intensive coverage or in monitors over the shoulders of network anchors as they brought out their talking heads to analyze President Clinton's just-completed valedictory address.
The President ended his speech characteristically late in the evening. And, according to Republicans, who had demanded that news networks devote no more time to the Democrats than they had to Republicans, the President's post-prime time finish damaged Grand Old Party interests.
While the President's farewell to the troops got broad exposure across all networks, Republicans were still smarting over NBC's decision not to run the first night of their convention and other networks cutting parts of speeches from First Lady-hopeful Laura Bush and the popular retired General Colin Powell.
"The networks are essentially providing a corporate contribution to the Democratic Party," said Republican National Committee spokesman Bill Pascoe. "Everyone wants to get on the networks because the networks have the audience share. Of course it's their job to make that decision. We think they're doing their jobs poorly. Yes, he's the President. But he wasn't there as President of the United States. He was there as titular head of his party."
"We did not go in saying we were going to give this convention any more time than we did in Philadelphia," said Marc Burstein, ABC's executive producer for special events. "We planned to devote exactly the same time for both. Monday night, it ran over and we exercised editorial judgment. That's what we get paid for."
Perhaps the Republicans were victims of their own precision. Network producers had spoken in near awe two weeks before at the RNC's ability to time things so well, building in musical time-buffers from which they could cut. As a result, only a few of its proceedings went even a few minutes past scheduled prime time.
"This convention is scheduled just as carefully," said PBS' NewsHour executive producer Les Crystal last week, "but the Democrats weren't always able to get their speakers to follow the schedule as carefully. Monday night they were counting on several senators to speak about three minutes each. Instead, they ran five-to-six minutes each."
"Is it fair to penalize us for actually holding to the schedule we released?," asked Pascoe. We understand that the networks think they screwed up at the Republican convention" after internal complaints that not enough time had been diverted from regular prime time schedules (B & C , Aug. 7).
"We recognize that they put themselves in a difficult situation. But just because some of them mouth off doesn't absolve them of the responsibility to provide equal time."
Yet viewer response, at least through the penultimate night of last week's convention, appeared to demonstrate greater interest in the Democrats.
Fueled by Clinton's address on the first night, when viewers stayed with the late speech way past prime time, the Democrats' first night drew millions more than the Republicans over the several networks carrying it-even a bump up from the same night in 1996. PBS alone drew 700,000 more from the 2.3 million it drew the first night of the GOP confab. Tuesday night's lineup of Jesse Jackson and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, though, recorded a sizable drop off-NBC skipped the convention in prime time that night-but Sen. Joseph Lieberman's speech Wednesday outdrew Republican rival Dick Cheney.
In cable, where, unlike the commercial broadcast networks, special political events mean a boost and not a ratings sacrifice, CNN maintained its top position and improved significantly on ratings from two weeks before. MSNBC, which ran a distant third for the Republicans, passed FOX News Channel this time. A spokesman for MSNBC said it was pleased with ratings for both conventions.
Commenting on the perception that FOX News is a haven for conservatives, executive producer Marty Ryan suggested that "about 75% of our audience are viewers who are political junkies, and maybe 25% are viewers who are conservative and don't want to watch Hillary and Bill Clinton. But we could not be happier with how we've done."