The DNC’s TV Blackout

PUBLISHED: August 29, 2008

Unless you were able to beg, bribe or politic your way onto the floor of the Democrats' convention in Denver this week, the only view worth having was the one provided by the cable network C-SPAN. Coverage everywhere else on the dial seemed as antiquated and strained as the convention process itself.

For four nights, the DNC put on a show that was tightly choreographed, well scripted, and precisely timed - a model of what modern political conventions have become. Too bad television viewers missed most of it.

Did you catch Rep. Dennis Kucinich giving his over-the-top yet marvelously entertaining "Wake Up America!" speech? Were you impressed by the eloquence of Jesse Jackson, Jr.? How did you like the analysis of John McCain's policies as articulated by the Governor of his own state, Janet Napolitano of Arizona?

If you were watching the conventional broadcast networks - ABC, NBC and CBS - or even the major cable networks - CNN, MSNBC and Fox - you missed all these speeches. At most, you saw brief replays.

Thursday night’s stadium venue made coverage more dramatic, with networks investing $100,000 to get aerial views. But while pundits ranted about whether there was enough “red meat” in the speeches, viewers found precious little meat on the TV bones.

The problem is that political conventions have changed dramatically over the years, while broadcasters’ approach in covering them, despite fancy technology, is essentially the same. Gone are the days when the presidential candidate’s name is in doubt; no longer are there spirited floor fights over planks in the platform; even the selection of a vice presidential candidate is announced days in advance to maximize publicity.

What both parties now offer is carefully crafted theater: a modern multi-media show. It may lack suspense, but as Democrats proved this week, it can be well done, informative and quite entertaining.

Unfortunately, commercial television is unwilling, even for a few weeks every four years, to present this spectacle in a cogent way. The three main networks long ago decided to offer only a single hour in prime-time, turning the bulk of the work over to cablecasters. And cable, now so competitive and increasingly politicized, is terrified of allowing talking-head politicians to - heaven forbid - talk.

As a result of this twisted approach, when Mark Warner of Virginia delivered the keynote address, none of the three major networks carried it live. Yet, as Warner stepped away from the podium, just as Katie Couric’s precious hour of prime-time began, Warner was interviewed by Bob Schieffer about a speech that viewers never saw.

CNN, meanwhile, spent four days obsessively proclaiming that it was the only cable network telecasting “from the floor,” while at the same time urging viewers to go20to the CNN Web site if they had any interest in seeing the actual convention.

MSNBC, with arguably the best team of reporters and commentators, decided to place anchors Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews in the parking lot, with a clear view of Union Station and occasional sounds of passing trains. This may have been the inevitable result of budget cutbacks at NBC News, but it certainly put a crimp in the coverage.

Worse than these strange logistics was the fact that TV news departments continued to send reporters scurrying around the floor looking for news that simply wasn’t there to be found. Would Hillary’s supporters boo Obama? Can Bill Clinton stick to the script? Is Ted Kennedy in the building?

At one point CBS News cut live to a floor reporter who asked a delegate from Ohio, “What do you hope to hear tonight from Hillary Clinton?” Said the woman, in all apparent seriousness: “I just want her to let us know that she’s okay.”

Here’s a case when no news isn’t good news, it’s simply no news - and it spoils any interested viewer’s chance of enjoying the event. In fact, ABC, CBS and NBC seemed to tailor their coverage to barely-interested viewers.

Among the more compelling speeches of the week was the one by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who was, after all, the party’s presidential candidate just four years ago. No commercial networks cared to cover it when Kerry said Sen. McCain "has morphed into candidate McCain who is using the same 'Rove' tactics and the same 'Rove' staff to repeat the same old politics of fear and smear."

And one wonders why, in a era of unabashed advo-casting, Fox News even bothered to attend. According to Fox’s Brit Hume, clearly bored by the speeches, “You’d think by the end of one of these litanies that we’ve been living in Belarus or something like that, where everything is terrible.”

For those with access to PBS or C-SPAN there was plenty of mercifully pundit-free coverage. Indeed, a news photo of Barack Obama watching Sen. Clinton’s speech Tuesday night reveals that his TV was tuned to C-SPAN.

Next week in St. Paul the Republicans will offer a dramatically different message. Unfortunately for viewers, the media and the messengers will be the same.

© Peter Funt. This article first appeared in Monterey Herald.

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