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A New Era of Prime-Time Politics

THE WASHINGTON POST

They were handing out “Lehrer and Brokaw in ’96" buttons at the National Press Club this week as the network anchors tried to drum up interest in their joint coverage of this summer’s political conventions.

PBS’ Jim Lehrer said that since he began covering such gatherings in 1960, “everyone always predicted they were going to be dull. They were going to be boring. They were going to be irrelevant.” But he insisted, “It’s important. It matters.”

NBC’s Tom Brokaw called the conventions “the one opportunity we have in America for all the political constituencies to come together under a common roof and argue, sometimes civilly and sometimes not so civilly. . . . This time will be especially important.”

Not so important, however, that NBC and the other major broadcast networks are willing to blow out lucrative prime-time schedules for the gavel-to-gavel coverage of decades past. Instead they will probably air 60 to 90 minutes a night, with NBC reporters appearing on PBS until 10 p.m., as they did four years ago.

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Officials at ABC will not even commit to nightly coverage until they see each party’s schedule of speakers. “I don’t think you can say we’re going to be on the air every night,” said Robert Murphy, ABC’s vice president for hard news. “We are undecided. . . .”

Some television executives say the pageantry surrounding the August nominations of President Clinton and Bob Dole is likely to stir little excitement compared with, say, the Summer Olympics.

“Most of America isn’t really watching anybody’s coverage,” said Lane Venardos, a CBS vice president. “I don’t know what you do about that, if you believe you’re putting out a quality product and have made it as interesting as you can. . . . You’ve got four people introducing each other for someone to make a speech that’s boring.”

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There was a time when almost everyone watched the conventions, in part because they had little choice; there was nothing else on. These days convention coverage is just a click away from ESPN, MTV, the History Channel and other entertainment alternatives. In 1992, convention coverage on the Big Three networks drew 31% of the audience, compared with 47% four years earlier.

Still, conventions remain a chance for networks to showcase celebrity anchors and analysts, who find plenty to say even when the proceedings are a snooze. CBS, for example, will feature Dan Rather anchoring on the floor, along with Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl and Andy Rooney of “60 Minutes.”

Some 15,000 journalists and commentators are expected in San Diego to cover the Republicans and in Chicago for the Democrats.

Political junkies can watch all the action on CNN and C-SPAN. Tom Hannon, CNN’s political director, concedes saturation coverage will be a challenge.

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“These things have been fairly devoid of drama for about 20 years now,” he said. “They tend to be very well-orchestrated events designed to show the nominee in the best light possible.”

CNN, whose ratings rise during the conventions, is beefing up its usual contingent of several hundred staffers. By contrast, CBS, which took more than 600 staffers to the 1988 conventions, is bringing about 200 this year.

Hal Bruno, ABC’s political director, says the four-day extravaganzas are still significant.

“Every convention has an important theme to it,” he said. “A party and its candidate always have a challenge, something they’ve got to accomplish and something they’ve got to avoid. The challenge for Dole is to maintain his ultra-conservative support and not put on a convention that scares the mainstream voters.”

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Emily Rooney, political director at Fox, which will provide feeds to its affiliate stations, says conventions “take on a life of their own.” But Rooney admitted she “wouldn’t want to have to fill four hours in a row.”

Bruno maintains the limited network coverage is sufficient. “When you concentrate on what’s important, you have a better chance of attracting people to watch it. If you put on a lot of boring, meaningless stuff, people tune out.”


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