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TV Plays Host to a Grand Old Party

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A little suspense music, please.

Yes, the Republicans would have Hollywood producer David Wolper packaging their show, just as the Democrats were choreographed and color-coordinated in Atlanta by TV’s Dwight Smith and David Hemion.

But the media wanted a real reason to be in New Orleans. And the GOP--seeking maximum exposure for its rubber-stamping nomination process--gave it to them.

Surely TV, and not politics, was on Vice President George Bush’s mind when he shrewdly withheld announcing his running mate until the Republican National Convention, which starts today.

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That at least gives ABC, CBS and NBC something legitimate to wag about in their limited nightly coverage of the GOP meeting where Bush will get the official nod to battle Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for the presidency.

As always when media and politics are in proximity, the manipulation was mutual. What took place was a sort of subliminal collusion.

No matter what, the GOP was going to get the same gavel-to-gavel coverage from CNN and C-SPAN that the Democrats did in Atlanta last month. But the cable duo’s combined audience is tiny compared with that of ABC, CBS and NBC.

So it was the Big Three networks that all but dictated Bush’s timing on naming his running mate. They did so by hinting, after the relatively uneventful Democratic convention, that they might grant even less--or less intense--coverage to the GOP in New Orleans, given the certainty of Bush’s nomination and routine of the proceedings.

That was a signal for the Republicans to throw the networks a bone to keep them interested. And that they did--keeping alive the mystery of Bush’s running mate.

With no other major stories to report, network speculation about that will hit the fan in a big way. And if that old showman Wolper is on his game, he’ll reveal Bush’s choice by having the running mate zoom into the New Orleans Superdome via one of those rocket-propelled flying gizmos that wowed everyone watching the Opening Ceremonies for the 1984 Summer Olympics.

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Even if Bush had named his running mate before this week’s event, each network still would have owed the Republicans as many hours of coverage as it gave the no-news Democrats in Atlanta.

Undoubtedly, these conventions are mainly festivals of propaganda and persuasion aimed at swaying the home audience. But TV and the election process are now inseparable, with each party’s candidate traditionally getting a sizable boost in the polls after its convention is televised. Hence, it would have been unfair to give one party less coverage than the other, regardless of whether there was or wasn’t a story to report.

As for the future, if there is no convention story, you can be assured that each party will be astute enough to manufacture one to keep TV attentive, given the experience of 1988.

What’s unfortunate in all of this is the emphasis of TV-show criteria over mere TV coverage. There is a difference.

It seems impossible for the networks to merely cover a major event these days and let the chips fall. More and more, events are judged mainly as TV shows, as if anything not automatically adaptable to small-screen size and sensibility was unworthy of serious attention.

Life is not a TV show. The notion that everything must be either highly entertaining or gripping in a dramatic sense is preposterous and damaging to the information process.

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The same applies to judging the worth and appeal of national political conventions by the same ratings standards applied to “ALF” or “Dynasty.”

What kind of nonsense is this, anyway? Simple rules should apply: If something is without news value, don’t cover it, period. But if it does merit coverage, cover it and shut up about the ratings.

When ratings become the criterion for choosing stories to cover, then the networks will cease to be in the news business.

And even using ratings as a barometer, ironically, the Democrats had more success in Atlanta than you might have concluded from much of the post-convention blather.

“Low Ratings Cast Cloud Over Convention Coverage,” headlined Broadcasting magazine, which added, “Many viewers opt to watch something other than ABC, CBS, NBC.”

“Do Conventions Turn Off the Public?” asked Time magazine.

“Atlanta ‘88: Many Covered, Few Watched,” announced the trade journal Electronic Media.

Low ratings? Conventions turn off the public? Few watched? On the contrary, the combined audience on cable and the Big Three networks was quite large. Rarely have so many Americans been so cavalierly dismissed as insignificant or defined as “few.”

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Based on the A. C. Nielsen Co.’s formula for counting viewers, the composite prime-time TV audience for the Democrats ranged from about 43 million on opening night to 57 million on the Wednesday night highlighted by Jesse Jackson’s rousing speech. Dukakis drew a “paltry” 52 million for his Thursday-night acceptance speech.

Those figures assume even greater significance when you note that fewer than 93 million Americans voted in the 1984 presidential election. So more than half that number watched Jackson and Dukakis.

“The American people are not involved,” ABC News President Roone Arledge said in Atlanta immediately after the Democratic convention. “We’re here, and it’s a waste.”

Hardly. There’s nothing wasteful about serving an enormous audience that’s involved enough to watch on TV, and one that will be rewarded this week with the identity of Bush’s running mate.

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