Nightly wall-to-wall coverage of the political conventions was for many years -- dating back to the early 1950s -- a staple of summer TV programming, so it should not come as much of a surprise that, for many Americans of a certain age, the idea of truncated coverage requires some getting used to. It bears noting, however, that all-out network TV coverage -- the kind that gave rise to the first teaming of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC in 1956 -- was as much a result of TV deploying novel technology as it was a case of grand and perhaps altruistic service to the public.
When Democrats meet July 26-29 in Boston, and Republicans gather Aug. 30-Sept. 2 in New York, the conventions will get just three hours of prime-time coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC -- but that doesn't mean American voters will have no access to the proceedings. Rather, the networks -- along with relative newcomers to the news business, including cable channels and bloggers -- will provide coverage that reflects not only what programmers perceive to be the public appetite for political news, but also illustrates the current state of technological advancement.
ABC, for example, has announced that it will offer its affiliates a discreet 24/7 digital signal dedicated to election coverage from July 26 through Election Day. Beyond that, ABC will supplement its broadcast coverage with programming over ABC News Live, the ABCNews.com Web site and ABC News Radio.
Prime-time network viewers will see former President Bill Clinton, Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., speak at the Democratic convention, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush at the Republican convention. Viewers who want something more substantive -- or who want to hear speeches by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or stem-cell-research advocate Ron Reagan -- will have to turn to cable, public broadcasting, the Internet or the daily paper.
Alternatives to prime-time broadcast coverage of conventions have grown considerably in recent years. Although many Americans remain unconnected to the World Wide Web, Internet access has nevertheless become commonplace. MSNBC.com -- a startup joint venture of Microsoft Corp. and NBC News at the time of the 1996 conventions -- has gained enough traction to post its first profit ever.
Cable news -- which at one time featured CNN and virtually no competition -- has become a major influence on American political life.
CNN and Fox News Channel both plan extensive coverage of both major-party conventions. The NBC cable channels MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo will also offer extensive coverage.
PBS plans to offer three hours of programming each night of each convention. Jim Lehrer, anchor of PBS's "The NewsHour," told United Press International he sees the conventions as an important shared national experience that merit that much coverage.
"We believe very strongly that these are major events in the political process," he said. "The nature of the journalism has changed, but the journalistic importance of the conventions has not changed."
What started out as an exciting novelty turned into potentially disastrous unpredictability for the political parties when all hell broke loose at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. By 1972 the Republican convention was so tightly orchestrated that convention managers handed out advisories to TV and radio producers that included down-to-the-minute timing for everything from the precise moment at which Richard Nixon would accept re-nomination to the balloon drop that would follow his speech.
ABC's Ted Koppel famously removed his "Nightline" crew from the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego, complaining that there was no news to cover there.
Thomas Hollihan, associate dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, told UPI the stagecraft employed by the political parties has not just resulted in fewer hours of network TV coverage -- it has also transformed the content that networks choose to cover.
"They'll shift to the image-oriented stuff -- films about the candidates, the hoopla," he said, "so they will increasingly focus on the conventions as political spectacle, rather than a place where substantive issues are taken up."
When there were just three networks providing extensive nightly coverage, viewers generally saw the same event regardless of whose coverage they chose to watch. As the number of media outlets at the conventions continues to multiply -- with credentials being granted to bloggers, and TV coverage extending as far as Comedy Central -- the audience grows increasingly fragmented.
Lehrer said that could promote fragmentation of American society as a whole.
"If everybody covered the major events at these conventions, it wouldn't matter where you saw it, you would have that shared experience," he said. "The only experience you would not have shared would be the journalism around it."
Hollihan said the scattering of political coverage among more information sources, combined with the corresponding scarcity of coverage on the major broadcast networks, contributes to what he calls a "rich-poor" information gap.
"There is still a big gap between who has access to particularly the Internet and who does not," he said. "There's still a noteworthy gap between which communities will be wired and which communities won't."
Hollihan said the disappearance of the "conversational commons" that network political coverage used to provide could exacerbate the political disconnectedness that many Americans already feel.
"They have less knowledge, which may lead to feelings of diminished political empowerment," he said.
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