Must-see GOP TV

PHILADELPHIA, JULY 31 -- There's an excellent reason that the number of people watching the conventions plummeted between 1976 and 1996. Rather than being news events where important things actually happened, the quadrennial gatherings degenerated into lame made-for-TV spectacles, with predigested pap and feel-good videos substituting for the fractiousness and drama of years past. Seen in this light, the public's increasingly itchy clicker-finger should be seen not so much a sign of disengagement as evidence of good taste.

Now some of the best minds in media and politics have a solution. They want to force you to watch.

Okay, let's be clear. We're not talking Big Brother, as in Orwell's 1984. Instead, we're talking about canceling Big Brother, as in the so-called reality show, at least when the conventions are in session. At a noontime panel discussion at City Hall on Sunday, as thousands of delegates were beginning to arrive for the Republican National Convention, a whole lot of smart people who ought to know better insisted that what the process really needs is a return to gavel-to-gavel coverage by the three major broadcast networks.

"I think the networks' decision is flat-out unconscionable," said Democratic National Committee general chairman Ed Rendell, referring to the cutback in hours that are being devoted to convention coverage this year. Rendell -- a former Philadelphia mayor who was instrumental in bringing the Republicans here -- went so far as to insist that all six networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, UPN, and WB) broadcast all four hours during each of the conventions' four nights. "And if they lose money," he added, "they should take their lumps."

Rendell's was a popular position at the event, sponsored by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, part of Harvard's Kennedy School. His remarks were met with loud applause, as were similar calls to arms by former Shorenstein Center director Marvin Kalb, now co-director of the center's Vanishing Voter Project ("There is a public-interest obligation") and CNN anchor Judy Woodruff ("The stakes are higher than usual"). To be fair, none argued for conveyor-belt journalism; all, Rendell included, said the networks should use the conventions as an opportunity to do tough reporting, although all were unclear on exactly how to make that happen at an event so prefabricated that -- as Boston Globe editor Matt Storin pointed out -- not even the vice-presidential nomination is left for convention week anymore. By contrast, the crowd sat on its hands when CBS News president Andrew Heyward said the Big Three networks should get credit for continuing to cover the such non-newsworthy events as thoroughly as they do, noting that they will all broadcast the presidential nominees' speeches live.

Of course, the conventions are being covered gavel to gavel on cable, via CNN, MSNBC, the Fox News Channel, and C-SPAN, as well as on the Internet and in every major and most minor newspapers in America. And there is one broadcast network that's going gavel to gavel: PBS. Not everyone gets cable or has an Internet connection; but everyone with a television set does get PBS, and newspapers are not exactly difficult to come by. With some 15,000 journalists in town, there will be no shortage of political reporting this week. So why, you might ask, is it necessary to broadcast the conventions on every network?

The answer is that the public won't watch unless it's forced to. Proponents of coverage on all the networks don't put it quite that crudely. But Kennedy School professor Tom Patterson, who is also the co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project, argued in a background paper that 74 percent of people who responded to a recent survey didn't know when the Republican convention would be held, and only 34 percent planned to watch any of it. Thus, the need for multi-outlet coverage, Patterson argued, is based on the notion that viewers who turn on the tube looking for Survivor and finding the convention instead will stick around and maybe learn something about the presidential campaign. Perhaps the theory is that one faux reality show is as good as another.

It was that unlikely populist Tom Brokaw, the NBC anchor, who pointed out the flaws in Patterson's argument, comparing the unavoidable coverage Patterson and Rendell favor to "state television."

Afterwards, when I asked Brokaw to elaborate, he did so with relish, calling the conventions "summer camp for grown-ups," and suggesting that viewers are turned off by politics not because they don't care, but because they sense a powerful disconnect between politics and their lives. "This is all about raising money and having a good time," Brokaw told me. "The public today is separated from what's going on in Washington -- not every four years, but every day."

Forcing people to watch isn't going to change that grim truth.


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