When the Republican National Convention starts today in San Diego, TV viewers may be seeing the beginning of the end of an era.
“This is probably the last time you’ll see the political conventions on network television,” said Jeff Zucker, executive producer of NBC’s “Today” and the network’s convention coverage. “I believe you’ll see cable supplant broadcast networks in that role.”
Zucker could be speaking like a news executive whose network has gone into the cable business. NBC recently launched MSNBC, a 24-hour cable service that uses the resources of NBC News.
But the trend in the number of hours the broadcast networks have devoted to network coverage does not make Zucker’s prediction sound far-fetched. In 1980, the traditional Big Three broadcast networks aired more than 100 hours of convention coverage. In 1992, that figure had dropped to 40 hours. This year, ABC, CBS and NBC are scheduled to do a total of 30 hours. Fox’s news division will stick to hourly one-minute updates and coverage on its “Fox News Sunday” program.
By contrast, cable’s top news source, CNN, will do more than 50 hours devoted to the Republican convention alone. CNN will have gavel-to-gavel coverage and most of its programs, such as “Larry King Live,” will originate from the convention sites.
The conventions will also give MSNBC its first turn at bat with extensive live coverage of a political event. NBC’s interest in growing the cable network is likely to make this presidential season the last time NBC will collaborate with PBS on its convention coverage, an arrangement the network began in 1992.
Like nearly everything else in the broadcast network world, audiences for convention coverage have slipped as viewers have been given more choices on the dial. This year, executives are expecting audience shares to slide into the high single digits for ABC, CBS and NBC.
The proliferation of cable channels has sliced the audience over the last decade, and convention coverage is no different. Public affairs junkies can have a gavel-to-gavel view of the proceedings on C-Span. Comedy Central will have updates twice an hour from its commentators Al Franken and Arianna Huffington in primetime. At 11 p.m., the duo joins Bill Maher for a live wrap-up on “Politically Incorrect.”
MTV and Nickelodeon will be also hand to provide their spin. The Republican National Committee will offer its own version with time buys on USA Network and the Family Channel.
But it’s not just the greater number of cable outlets that has diminished the number of hours the networks are devoting to the conventions. The events themselves have failed to make great viewing in recent years. Conventions once provided some of the most dramatic moments in television news, such as the removal from the floor of NBC’s John Chancellor at the fractious 1964 Republican gathering. The legend of CBS’ Dan Rather was partly built by viewers seeing him roughed up during the riot-torn 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
The political parties now work hard to keep negative images off the home screen. The Republican National Committee has made it clear that this year’s convention will be a tightly choreographed affair made for television.
“The fact is they don’t want us to have anything to cover,” said ABC News special correspondent Cokie Roberts. “They want to have a love fest. And that’s not news.”
The drawn-out primary season that chooses the candidates well in advance has also removed any suspense from the conventions. “Conventions no longer select,” said Jeff Gralnick, vice president and executive producer for ABC News. “Conventions ratify. Conventions are dealing with a known conclusion. People don’t watch. The three networks, plus CNN, if we’re lucky in a given hour of primetime, might cobble together an audience equal to what one network might get with a marginal primetime broadcast.”
CBS News, the only network maintaining the same number of hours as in 1992, is taking a more gung ho attitude toward its convention coverage, which may be a part of the division’s effort to get a higher profile under the network’s new ownership.
While primetime presence of the broadcast networks at the conventions has diminished, all are ready to service the political junkie through the Internet.
ABC will provide round-the-clock convention coverage over its PoliticsNow site on the World Wide Web. NBC and its MSNBC partner Microsoft are producing a site called Decision ‘96, which will also have a “humor area” featuring the peacock network’s late-night personalities. CBS’ Campaign ‘96 Web site will have live gavel-to-gavel video and audio coverage of the convention.
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