Unscripted TV at Its Wildest

Once staid conventions turn into bazaars of the bizarre
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Two decades ago, Ted Koppel pulled most of his Nightline mates out of the GOP convention in San Diego. Citing a lack of news stemming from the carefully choreographed wingding, Koppel told The New York Times the once newsy event had turned into “more of an infomercial.”

Echoing Koppel’s sentiment, an NBC producer told the Times the network was considering leaving convention coverage to MSNBC when the ritual next occurred in 2000.

Not anymore, as two deeply divisive party standard-bearers, so notorious that the whole of a nation is on a first-name basis with them, turn the once staid conventions into bazaars of the bizarre. “I’ve executive-produced every one of these since 2000, and they’ve never been as newsworthy as this,” says Marc Burstein, ABC News senior executive producer, special events. “Nobody could possibly say these are infomercials.”

The broadcast and cable networks will be out in force in Cleveland and Philadelphia, anchoring morning and evening newscasts on location, breaking in with special coverage and even using hardly-hard-news platforms such as ABC’s The View, with cohosts Paula Faris at the GOP bash and Joy Behar at the Democrats’.

While Koppel has long since retired, his old Nightline program will return to the convention fold. “It’s an advantage no other broadcast network has,” believes Burstein.

The conventions approach with both parties in varying degrees of disarray. At press-time, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders had not yet waved the white flag, while the efforts to dump Trump have backers both deep within the Republican party and in far-left protest groups. “There’s a legitimate split in both parties,” says Sam Feist, CNN Washington bureau chief/senior VP. “That’s part of the coverage that we haven’t seen in quite a while.”

Add in that both candidates have been highly visible public figures for decades, both with a unique knack for sparking intense visceral reactions, and it promises to make for compelling television. Feist notes that the 2008 conventions had highly energizing figures in John McCain running mate Sarah Palin as well as President Obama, but they were tame compared to Donald and Hillary. “They’re the most famous and interesting candidates we’ve ever seen,” says Feist. “That’s what makes it fascinating.”

A recent NBC News poll said close to 60% of American voters dislike or hate Clinton, while 63% felt that way about Trump. Vociferous demonstrations will be key parts of the coverage. ABC, for one, will situate security correspondents outside both convention venues to train a lens on the protesters.

It’s Feist’s seventh go-round at the conventions, and the build-up is, for him, unprecedented. “It’s safe to say the interest level,” he says, “is the highest I’ve ever seen.”

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