Dead Air at the Convention

By Prof. WALT BRASCH

Special to USAfricaonline.com
and The Black BusinessJournal

With scripts more complex than $100 million feature films, andabout as deep as "Dumb and Dumber," the quadrennial PR spectacleknown as political conventions invaded Philadelphia, Monday, July 31,2000 (by the Republicans) for four days, then moves to Los Angeles,August 14-17, 2000 (by the Democrats).

There are TV and movie stars, rock bands, dozens ofcorporate-sponsored $300,000-$500,000 parties, and a lot of babblingpomposity about compassion, education, defense, and whatever otherissues party pollsters determined the people want to hear. Thepoliticians, recognizing the pervasive nature of the mass media, haveraised the art of pandering to a level no call girl can everachieve.

With both parties having already determined their presidentialcandidates, the only major surprises at the conventions will be ifGeorge W. Bush finds a brain or Al Gore begins break-dancing. Each ofthe four major TV networks are devoting only three to four hours oflive coverage to each convention, plus a few minutes on morningwake-up programs and the evening news for discussions and tapedhighlights. This is about two hours less than the 1996 convention,and significantly less than the gavel- to-gavel coverage of two dozenconventions. The politicians, tripping over each other to find anyonewith a microphone and get a few seconds of air time, are upset aboutso little TV coverage. They want ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX not CNN, PBS,and MSNBC; they will settle for newspaper reporters if no one else isaround.

The first televised conventions were in Philadelphia in 1948. Atthe time, only about 170,000 of the nation's 42.2 million householdshad televisions. The networks, desperate to fill theirgovernment-issued air waves, begged the nation to believe thattelevision was at the cutting edge of the future. TV neededpoliticians; politicians weren't so sure they needed TV.

By 1960, more than 46 million of the nation's 58 millionhouseholds had at least one TV set, and most stations werebroadcasting at least 16 hours a day. If anyone doubted the potentialand power of television, it was quashed that year during thetelevised Nixon-Kennedy debates which gave the Massachusetts senatora lead he never lost. Eight years later, the cameras recorded theChicago riots, giving credibility to the antiwar movement andvirtually destroying the Democrats' chance to defeat Richard Nixon,even though the liberal Hubert Humphrey deplored the police responseand the mayor's iron fist tactics. Today the networks cite lowratings and the absence of news as the reasons why they won't wastetheir time on coverage. Only about four million Americans at any timewatched the 1996 conventions; the networks' marketing analysts figurefewer than 35 percent of Americans will watch even one minute ofeither convention this year. In contrast, the equally quadrennialOlympics in 1996, with 171 hours of TV coverage, attracted about 25million Americans at any time, with more than a billion world widewatching at least one part of the 17-day event.

Even with significant coverage by a half dozen news cablenetworks, fewer Americans watched the first night of this year'sRepublican convention than heard what Dennis Miller said on his firstnight as color commentator on ABC's "Monday Night Football." However,ABC-TV, the NFL, and the Republicans apparently worked out some kindof a limited partnership--ABC broadcast the football game a bitearlier; after it was over, the Republicans ushered Gen. Colin Powellonto stage. CBS, NBC, and FOX didn't cover it live. It was thetelevision media that created the atmosphere that demanded"interesting visuals" and the seven-second sound bite; and now themedia are upset that politicians, in their infomercial packagedconventions that play to the camera, have nothing to say.

"People know there's nothing really happening" at the conventions,ABC News vice-president Jeff Grainick told the Chicago Tribunein 1996, then stated that the "meaningfulness of these conventionshas declined." NBC-TV executive producer Jeff Zucker four years agosaid he doubted any network would give much coverage to futureconventions. Ted Koppel said there was so little to cover, thenpulled his "Nightline" crews from the Republican convention.

It's hard to believe that 16,000 members of the media credentialedto cover each convention can't find any news. So, we'll see the massof media think they're covering American politics by giving us theusual slickly-prepared mini-bios of the candidates, innocuousfeaturettes about souvenirs and local foods, and the obligatoryinterviews with fawning and self- important delegates. There willalso be endless semi-erudite commentary that will bore viewers morethan any politician's hour-long speech. If the media were to leavetheir color-coordinated broadcast booths and hospitality suites, anddig beneath the puffery and pageantry, they may find the greatersocial and political issues that need to be reported, as well as thedelightful "slice of life" stories that help us better understand ourown lives.

As it is, the writers for Jay Leno, David Letterman, and ConanO'Brien will give America better insight than the politicians whostand before TV cameras, interviewed by personalities who pretend tobe journalists. -Brasch,a national award-winning journalist and contributing editor ofUSAfricaonline.com and The Black Business Journal is a professor ofjournalism Bloomsburg University Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. He has hascovered political campaigns for more than three decades. He wasassisted in researching of this column by Rosemary R. Brasch

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