Analysis: (Production) values in Boston

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  July 29, 2004 at 6:52 PM
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LOS ANGELES, July 29 (UPI) -- There is a heavy emphasis by both major political parties in 2004 on values, and so far, the Democratic National Convention in Boston illustrates the degree to which the parties have come to stress one set of values in particular -- production values imported from the entertainment industry.

The party has engaged a directing protégé of Steven Spielberg to produce a biographical film about presidential nominee John Kerry and brought in a 13-time Emmy winner to provide top-tier visuals for TV viewers. And, of course, the convention has attracted the standard compliment of Hollywood celebrities to give the folks at home a chance to do some stargazing.

Despite all that, the convention has so far failed to do what Variety would call "boffo B.O." According to a report in the showbiz bible, the audience for the first two nights of the convention represented only about half of the audience tuning in to regularly scheduled summer programming the week before.

As if to underscore the proposition that entertainment value is as meaningful to viewers as informative content, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" drew an audience of 1.3 million viewers Tuesday -- almost as many viewers as MSNBC managed, and Stewart's third-best Tuesday ever.

Tuesday featured the breakout speech of Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Illinois. The following day, Hollywood producer-director Rob Reiner defined Obama's performance in show-business terms.

"A star is born," said Reiner on MSNBC.

Joining Reiner in the celebrity contingent at the convention were such stars as Ben Affleck, Bono and Steve Buscemi.

Affleck showed some policy chops with a discussion about the evils of runaway production -- the practice of studios and producers who take production overseas to save money, leaving entertainment-industry professionals in the United States short of job opportunities. Bono wrote an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe taking convention organizers to task for giving insufficient attention, in his view, to "the biggest global challenge, AIDS and the extreme poverty in which it thrives."

Don Mischer -- who has won 13 Emmys for producing such TV spectaculars as the Academy Awards and various opening and closing Olympics ceremonies -- is calling the shots in the TV booth for the Democratic convention. Mischer isn't accustomed to his shows drawing such relatively small audiences, but he's been around long enough to know that that's showbiz.

On the other hand, Thomas Hollihan, a professor of communications at the University of Southern California, said the Democratic Party has to be dismayed by the ratings. Hollihan told United Press International the proliferation of channel choices and the new world of 24/7 news channels probably account for the lower ratings for convention speeches.

"Channel fragmentation is such now that there are so many alternative things to watch on TV that people are naturally going to those other programs -- and what they see of the conventions, they see on evening-news excerpts," he said.

Hollihan said convention hype is something of a mirror image of hype for other network programming -- viewers stay with shows such as "Survivor" because the outcome is in doubt until the final episode.

"The press has just been spreading the message so thoroughly (about the presidential race) that nothing of excitement happens at these conventions," he said.

That is the rationale that broadcast-network executives have offered for limiting their coverage of the conventions this year to three hours in prime time. USC journalism professor Bryce Nelson told UPI he thinks the networks should carry more convention coverage, without regard to ratings.

"We gave them all this valuable broadcast space and they've made a fortune off of it and I think they do have an obligation," he said.

The days when networks operated their news divisions as loss leaders are long gone. The networks now operate under a mandate from corporate ownership to maximize profits.

"They may be making a sound business decision that they could justify," said Nelson, "but I think they hurt the long-term credibility of networks as major news-providing organizations."

The speeches in Boston this week, while offering some policy details, have largely been designed and constructed to achieve a few main objectives -- including promotion of an image of Kerry as a commander in chief and a call to action for Democrats to work on his behalf between now and Nov. 2.

Hollihan said the TV coverage should include more discussion of policy issues, and he rejected the notion that viewers would be turned off by serious discussion.

"I don't think the fact that something becomes good TV necessarily means it can't be substantive," he said. "The keynote speech (by Obama) was just a terrific speech and very accessible for TV audiences."

Nelson said viewers may already be turned off by network and cable "talking heads endlessly babbling on." He suggested that a televised convention probably isn't the ideal forum for detailed policy discussion.

"I think there's a lot you can learn about America and the political process, even if they aren't specific (at the convention)," he said.

Hollihan said the critical function of televised conventions -- in which choosing a nominee and agreeing on a platform no longer seem to be matters of doubt or controversy -- is to help voters discern the differences between candidates and parties.

"There has been lots of information (coming out of Boston)," he said, "and I suspect there will be lots of information at the Republican convention, too."


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