On Cable, Conventions Are a Smackdown Event
(c) 2004, Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — Who needs Rather, Jennings and Brokaw? Chris Nowinski, political correspondent for World Wrestling Entertainment, will be prowling the floor of the Democratic National Convention next week for the cable television show, “Monday Night Raw.”
For this assignment, the 25-year-old wrestler will wear a sport coat and slacks instead of his usual TV attire — skin-tight briefs. His story angle, too, is based more on brains than brawn.
“What are they going to do to reach out to young voters in the fall?” Nowinski said he would ask Democrats. “We want to get more young people to vote.”
This year as never before, the national political conventions will connect with Americans through cable TV.
Some conduits are established news outlets, such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Others are known for their focus on pop music, sports, comedy — and even pro wrestling. All are helping fill the void left by shrinking broadcast network coverage of the gatherings that Republicans and Democrats stage every four years to nominate candidates for president and vice president.
Just three of the 28 hours of the Democratic convention in Boston from July 26 through July 29 will be broadcast live on the CBS, ABC and NBC networks, with the coverage anchored by Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, respectively. That includes a mere one hour on the night Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts accepts his party’s presidential nomination. The same slim schedule is planned when the Republicans meet in New York Aug. 30 through Sept. 2 to renominate President Bush.
The days of gavel-to-gavel network coverage are long in the past. And the sagging TV ratings for the 1996 and 2000 confabs led the networks to further reduce their live broadcasts this year.
“It’s their decision, and there’s not much more we can do about it,” a Republican Party official said on condition of anonymity. “But there’s so much cable now that I don’t know that network coverage is as essential as it once was.”
Indeed, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel will have many hours of live coverage and commentary every day from the conventions. C-SPAN will have its cameras trained on the podiums for every minute of the proceedings. And cable channels that target minorities, such as BET, will be there in force.
More off-beat reports will come from the ranks of ESPN, Comedy Central and MTV. And then there’s World Wrestling Entertainment, which produces shows for various cable channels. (“Monday Night Raw” airs on Spike TV.)
“The conventions are being off-loaded to cable,” said Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center. For the big networks, he said, political conventions are “not a huge draw. Cable then takes over.”
Peggy C. Wilhide, communications director for the Democratic National Convention said, “We are getting coverage like we’ve never gotten before from these different cable outlets. It’s a changing environment in terms of how people get their news and information. We’re just adapting.”
Studies show that many Americans are migrating to cable. The Pew center reported in June that 38 percent of Americans get their news regularly from cable, compared to 34 percent who regularly watch the nightly news on the three largest networks.
To some degree, that finding reflects cable’s specialized format. People can catch a snippet of news on cable anytime, anywhere: at home, work, the gym, a shopping center or an airport. Nielsen ratings, however, show that each of the three major network newscasts draws far more viewers than even the best-rated cable news show.
On the final night of the 2000 Democratic convention, for instance, CBS, ABC and NBC reached about 13.5 million homes, Nielsen Media Research found, while CNN, MSNBC and Fox reached about 2.5 million.
Nonetheless, cable channels will have undeniable prominence at the conventions. Fox News Channel scored a suite of skyboxes with some of the best camera angles at FleetCenter in Boston. BET, which targets black viewers, got what a Democratic official said was its first skybox.
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Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe personally delivered Comedy Central’s convention floor pass in a recent appearance on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” A Comedy Central executive said the show, which will be based at Boston University for the week, did not have such access four years ago.
Courting comedians is, of course, a bit risky. At the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia, Stewart declared, “We’re a fake news organization and this is a fake news event, so I think we’re the only people who should be here.”
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MTV has sent correspondents to several recent conventions and will do so again — this time, adding to its on-air team Ana Marie Cox, editor of the political gossip Web site Wonkette.com.
“You’re not going to be able to watch MTV for more than an hour or so without seeing some report from the convention,” said Ocean MacAdams, vice president for MTV news.
ESPN also will send a crew to Boston in its first major effort to cover a convention. “We’re going to be there and be as aggressive as anybody else,” said Brian Donlon, executive producer of the sports network’s morning show, “Cold Pizza.”
Donlon said he was intrigued by the sports backgrounds of Kerry, a hockey enthusiast and outdoorsman, and his vice presidential pick, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who played high school football and basketball and jogs daily. When the GOP comes to New York, Donlon said, ESPN will explore Bush’s ties to major league baseball as a former owner of the Texas Rangers.
The most extensive coverage, of course, will come from cable news channels. Fox calculates that its coverage will expand by more than a third compared with four years ago, which was its first opportunity to report on the conventions. Marty Ryan, executive producer for Fox’s political programs, dismissed critics who call the conventions stale and predictable.
“It’s really a great opportunity to see how (the candidates) present themselves, what ideas they emphasize,” Ryan said. “That’s why we’re going to be there in full force because it’s a big deal and we’re going to make a big deal out of it.”
CNN’s Washington bureau chief, David Bohrman, said he was planning live coverage of the most compelling speakers and a variety of reports to help bring the convention experience home to viewers. He predicted a nation hit by terrorists and at war in Iraq would have a renewed appetite for convention news.
“People have much more interest and feel a connection to the process of electing a president and who’s leading the country right now,” Bohrman said. “I think people will come to us. I think it’s the wrong time, in light of 9/11, for the broadcast networks to back off.”
While limiting their live national broadcasts, CBS, ABC and NBC are expanding coverage in some ways that echo their cable counterparts.
ABC will cover the conventions gavel-to-gavel through a special Internet-based news service that local affiliates will be able to feed through cable TV channels. NBC will file reports through sister cable channels MSNBC and CNBC. CBS will add Internet “Web casts.”
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Still, some criticize the limited coverage on the national broadcast channels. They note that some people cannot afford to subscribe to cable, own a satellite dish or have Internet broadband.
Thomas Hollihan, a political communication professor at the University of Southern California, said the shifts in convention coverage would exacerbate the nation’s “information gap.”
“Those who are interested in politics can find more and better information than ever before” through a variety of outlets, he said. Those who are not interested “will learn less than ever before.”