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ThiNGs weren’t supposed to work this way. Last week’s Democratic convention in Denver came off as a tightly scripted affair; all the drama resided in how the thing was covered on TV. It was the ultimate meta-event!

Take, for example, the Matthews Meltdown. Discussing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech on Tuesday, MSNBC host Chris Matthews lost it after colleague Keith Olbermann seemed to mock him with a hand gesture that suggested Matthews was talking too much. Hair askew, looking as if he had spent the night on a bench in a bus station, Matthews shed TV’s normal protocol and retorted: “I can do the same to you!” and defended his Hillary spiel: “That’s what I thought, all right? And I said it.”

The hot-tempered “Hardball” host has always had trouble with this “TV is a cool medium” concept, but let’s not single him out. The rhetorical cannons last week were blazing all over MSNBC. Olbermann, cable’s liberal lion, interrupted host Joe Scarborough when he was talking up John McCain’s poll numbers (“Why don’t you get a shovel?”); the next morning, Scarborough seemed to take out his frustration with a blistering tirade against colleague David Shuster. An anonymous source ominously told Politico.com, “The situation at our channel is about to blow up.”

There are likely more fireworks in store this week during the GOP gathering in Minneapolis, especially with critics, including some Democrats, painting MSNBC as the house organ of the Barack Obama campaign. But they may not get much chance to go at it. Hurricane Gustav, which was expected to slam the Gulf Coast this morning, has already disrupted the convention. In a news conference Sunday, convention officials announced they would reduce today’s opening activities to the bare essentials and would then reevaluate the situation.

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Still, the conventions are giving the cable-news folk cause for celebration, not recriminations, given the ratings.

A record total of 38.3 million viewers watched Obama’s acceptance speech Thursday, according to Nielsen Media Research. An average of 8 million watched on CNN alone, easily besting the broadcast competition on ABC, CBS and NBC. Of course, nobody on the Republican side approaches the media star power of Obama; McCain himself takes potshots at his own speaking skills. But last week, the three news cable networks each posted average prime-time gains of more than 50% compared with the ’04 convention; those gains are unlikely to fade away entirely in Minnesota.

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THE conventions are making it clearer than ever before that the broadcast networks have, for better or worse, permanently ceded to the cable outlets their role as the nation’s political prognosticators. That was the historic role that NBC first carved out more than 50 years ago for anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

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As CNN/US President Jon Klein told me late Thursday: “Networks are not in the news-coverage business anymore. They put on newscasts.”

If that seems a self-serving exaggeration, consider that while CNN, Fox News and MSNBC indulged in wall-to-wall coverage in Denver, the broadcast networks hewed to their recent pattern of devoting one paltry hour per night to the proceedings. The broadcast journalists were out there gamely trying but were handicapped covering a story that everyone else was swarming and where old-fashioned play-by-play seemed irrelevant. It was perhaps to the broadcasters’ detriment that the grand drama promised by the Clintons and their sore supporters dissolved into Hillary shutting down the roll call and the Democrats displaying stage-managed unity.

“The idea of a contested convention went away pretty quickly,” Marty Ryan, Fox News’ executive producer of political coverage, told me.

So what news there was, outside of the speeches everyone saw and interpreted, lurked in the margins. CBS trumpeted Katie Couric’s webcast interview with Michael Dukakis, the failed Democratic candidate of 1988, who apologized to Americans for not defeating George H.W. Bush, which he believes paved the way for the presidency of Bush’s son. The labors of Couric and her broadcast colleagues barely registered, though; Matthews’ rant and other sideshows at MSNBC generated far more attention. Overall, the broadcasters’ convention ratings stank.

I contacted the three network news divisions to get their take; none responded.

The broadcast vacuum has created other opportunities. When I mentioned to PBS’ Jim Lehrer that his network is doing the comprehensive, yeoman-like convention reporting that ABC, CBS and NBC used to do, he warmly intoned: “Amen.” PBS drew an average of 3 million viewers for its nightly coverage last week, down 14% from the 2004 Democratic convention but still very high by PBS standards, and not far from the numbers for its bigger broadcast cousins.

Lehrer faulted the broadcasters for “bad editorial judgment” in limiting convention coverage. “My God, we’re talking about one of the most important presidential elections we’ve had in this country in some time,” he said.

A sense of triumph seems missing at the cable networks, however. That’s probably because they remain locked in the bitter ratings wars that have dominated so much of their energies this decade.

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CNN’s Klein is reveling in the network’s Democratic-convention dominance, with prime-time ratings up 82% compared with four years ago. He insists CNN is doing well because it has found a middle path to covering politics. “The other guys have staked out the extremes of the political spectrum, leaving reasonable Republicans and Democrats only one place to get reliable, non-spin information,” Klein said.

But Fox News and MSNBC are posting ratings gains that are nearly as impressive. And Fox may do exceedingly well this week, if its record-breaking numbers from the ’04 GOP confab are any indication.

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ALTHOUGH MSNBC may be deliberately courting the liberal extremists with its star Olbermann and his on-air anti-Republican blasts, Fox News has actually been mending fences with Democrats, recently hiring former Hillary Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson as a commentator. And there is evidence that Fox News’ audience is in fact far less politically skewed than either CNN’s or MSNBC’s. A survey this month from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 39% of Fox News’ viewers were Republican, 33% Democratic. CNN was 51% Democratic and just 18% Republican, while MSNBC was 45%-18% in favor of Democrats.

But the political tilt of the cable audience might matter less than its size -- which is large and growing. The conventions play to cable’s strength at saturation coverage and instant analysis.

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scott.collins@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

By the numbers

Viewers of Barack Obama’s Thursday speech at DNC:

CNN: 8.0 million

ABC: 6.6 million

NBC: 6.1 million

CBS: 4.7 million

Fox News: 4.2 million

MSNBC: 4.0 million

PBS: 3.5 million*

*PBS’ number is an average from 8 to 11 p.m. Some other channels not included.

Source: Nielsen Media Research


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