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Ira Teinowitz is covering the Democratic and Republican conventions, documenting how television and advertisers mix it up with the politicians.

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Voice of Experience Discusses Convention Coverage

September 4, 2008 3:09 PM

The grand old man of broadcast TV’s convention coverage, Les Crystal, is again on the scene for the Republican National Convention.

This time he’s not actually producing PBS’ convention coverage, a job he handled at every political convention since moving from NBC to PBS’ “The NewsHour” in 1983. But the 73-year-old Mr. Crystal, president of McNeil/Lehrer Productions, is on the scene, as he has been at most national political conventions since 1968.

His role has changed. In 1968 Mr. Crystal was associate producer for NBC for scenes outside the convention center—a job that got a little more interesting when major protests broke out at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Subsequently Mr. Crystal became executive producer of “The NBC Nightly News,” president of NBC News, executive producer of NBC’s Election Night and convention coverage and supervisor of all political and special news coverage.

The conventions, meanwhile, went through their own alterations.

“It’s changed,” Mr. Crystal said. “Certainly in the 1960s and early 1970s there was some question about what was going to happen … either the nomination or who was going to get the vice presidential nomination or how the platform was going to be worked out. But from 1976 on, with direct primaries, the convention choices were made before you got to the convention, so today versus 40 years ago, there is no contest over the nominee and no contest over the platform.”

Another major change, he said, is the growth of cable news channels and the decrease of broadcast network coverage.

Also changed is the way the conventions take place.

“The programming has gotten more choreographed. It’s now designed for the television audience rather than the people in the hall,” he said.

Finally, security has been ramped up.

“Since 2004 it is very intense. I’m always struck by the irony of this important symbolic event of the democratic process and this intense security.”

Mr. Crystal said he sees PBS’ role in covering the conventions as being to offer more analysis than C-SPAN, but still give viewers more of a flavor of what is happening.

“I think we are a blend between what networks used to do and what C-SPAN does,” he said. “We are doing a blend of what’s going on at the podium plus analysis, so I think ensuring that the viewer is getting a very good sense of what is happening at the convention.”

He said that while he doesn’t watch what the cable channels do, viewers say “The NewsHour” provides more of the floor speeches than they do.

“We make it a point to get the very, very good speeches, but the important speeches that may not be headliners, so people have a good sense of what is going on the floor.”

In covering the conventions for three hours a night, PBS is filling the role traditionally held by the networks. The broadcast networks’ cutback in live coverage has drawn fire from some media critics, who note TV stations get their airwaves for free from the government and then don’t use them to cover one of the essential elements of American democracy—the party conventions.

Mr. Crystal said he understands that commercial networks get a wider audience through entertainment programming, so he is reluctant to criticize.

“I think it would be worthwhile if they did more,” he said. “I think it’s a critical moment that comes once every four years.”

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