Forget the broadcast networks of ABC, NBC and CBS.
And forget PBS, too, unless you are part of the minority that doesn't have cable or online access. Public television simply doesn't have the resources any longer to do any kind of original, first-rate coverage of hardly anything -- even a pre-planned event like a national convention.
If you want to use TV to get the best information and to engage as fully as possible with the Republican convention that begins Monday in Tampa and the Democratic convention next month in Charlotte, go with cable. And not just any cable.
Go with C-SPAN and CNN. And of those two, only the former is to be totally trusted — as CNN struggles over issues of identity, laying off journalists, mis-reporting a big story and hiring TV personalities like Anthony Bourdain.
National conventions are a special time, and not just for political junkies. They are a great way every four years for TV news watchers like me to take stock of who’s up, who’s down, and who is simply out of it in small-screen journalism.
(Everyone has their digital and social media "hubs" primed and pumped for the conventions, and their exponential growth is another story. This column is about TV, which is still the principal storytelling in not just political but all American life.)
The last two conventions have shown how far the networks have declined in the national political discourse. After almost two decades of analysts like me fretting in print about how little coverage the networks are going to offer in prime time (one hour a night Tuesday through Thursday, nothing Monday this year), no one seems to care much anymore.
Let the networks ignore speeches by the candidates’ wives, for example, so that they can keep those reruns and trashy reality shows coming. I won’t be building my convention viewing around an hour with, say, ABC News, which has managed in the last few weeks to embarrass itself twice on major stories — falsely linking a Colorado gunman to the Tea Party and airing an unconfirmed report that a Hollywood director who committed suicide had brain cancer.
My recommendation of C-SPAN as the ultimate go-to place for viewers starts with the question: Who wants to cover this story more than anyone else?
“We think of this as our Olympics,” says Susan Swain, co-CEO of the cable industry’s public affairs channel. “We put our all into this. You can imagine when we’re programming 24/7, it takes everyone’s input. We’re aiming to be a place where people with a lot of choices can confidently go and see it all.”
Swain says C-SPAN, which goes into its 24/7 convention mode Sunday, sees itself as, “The place for the real political junkie out there, because our coverage is as close to being there as television can convey. Many people at other networks claim gavel-to-gavel, but in fact, they abhor vacuums. So, they talk over every single lapse and/or over speakers who they deem less important than others.”
Be warned, C-SPAN’s gavel-to-gavel coverage is not for everyone. It bores some people to death. And, in a media-saturated world where news consumers are conditioned to bits, bites, highlights, summaries and takeaways, watching non-edited, fly-on-the-wall coverage can even be confusing to some. It's sad that some members of the audience have been dumbed-down to this extent, but it has happened and you can't act like it hasn't.
C-SPAN, however, has added a wrinkle that directly addresses this decline to some extent, which is another reason I pick it as the overall place to go.
Through a partnership with Politico, C-SPAN viewers will be able to start and end each day with the experts from the premier digital destination for all things political.
At 8:30 a.m., C-SPAN will carry Politico’s “Power Breakfast,” featuring chief White House correspondent Mike Allen. At midnight, Politico’s daily convention wrap-up video, produced for its own website, will be shown. If you are looking for story lines, analysis and synthesis to take you into and through the conventions, you could not find a better guide than Politico.
Jim VandeHei, co-founder of Politico and a former Washington Post political reporter, says Politico hopes to add “texture” to C-SPAN’s coverage. C-SPAN has carried some of Politico’s primary and debate coverage in recent months, but this is the first convention.
“It’s been an awesome partnership for us, because we have this shared passion for what’s happening in politics, what’s happening on Capitol Hill,” VandeHei says.
“What we can bring are the considerable newsgathering resources, and what they bring is this really big audience. … I also think we bring an energy to the table, and I think that excitement comes through on camera.”
No one has more newsgathering sources overall than CNN, and in 2008, no one provided better convention and election coverage. Led by John King, Wolf Blitzer and Candy Crowley, CNN owned the territory like no other cable channel.
But the ratings have not been kind to CNN since. Fox News has thrived and MSNBC has improved its position by going with hardcore, ideological programming in prime time — Fox from the right and MSNBC from the left. The big change the last four years is MSNBC embracing wall-to-wall leftist politics with the addition of non-journalistic show hosts like Al Sharpton, Lawrence O’Donnell and Ed Schultz. They will be joining Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews in convention coverage.
And let's not even talk about the gang of failed Democratic governors and leftist ideologues that will be joining former Democratic vice president Al Gore on Current TV, a channel that barely registers in the Nielsen ratings.
“So here we are in 2012, and the cable news channels are the networks that really give the conventions the most coverage,” says Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief and senior vice president for CNN.
“We’re going to, on the one hand, give the candidates and the parties an opportunity to tell America why they should vote for them. That’s part of what a convention is,” he explains. “But on the other hand, we’re going to ask tough questions of their surrogates and we’re going to fact check their speeches because that’s our job. ... We’re the only cable news channel that hasn’t picked sides in this election.”
CNN, which begins its wall-to-wall convention coverage today with its Sunday shows based in Tampa and two prime-time documentaries on GOP candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama, has used technology, talent and keen production values to generally present the most engaging convention coverage.
But while CNN’s Washington-based, all-star political team from 2008 is largely intact, corporate management in New York has constantly been messing with the on-screen product as it searches for ratings, forcing show hosts like Erin Burnett and Piers Morgan into the mix on nights of political coverage.
They will both be there during the conventions, which is why I withhold any kind of all-out advance endorsement of CNN in favor of C-SPAN.
In the end, for all the millions of dollars spent by the network and cable channels in 2008, what really made the conventions such good television were the performances of two people whom the networks and cable channels had no control over: Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, who both gave rock star performances at the podium.
The kindest thing I can say this year in that regard: Let’s not pre-judge.