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Convention Broadcasts a Relic of a Bygone Era

Aug 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Hold on. There’s still one convention to go. Republicans this time, in New York. Again more journalists than delegates. Newspaper reporters filing stories about the insipid, tasteless, unnecessary repeats the TV networks will be showing instead of the convention proceedings. With one voice, America will say, “Tsk, tsk, tsk.” The reporters will reminisce about the days of “gavel-to-gavel” coverage and opine about public duty.

Too late.

If broadcasters have a public duty, there is no one around to enforce it, and the networks, having become merely parts of very large companies, are required to show the same kind of profit the other parts do. Free markets mean free markets.

If the people who run the networks thought convention coverage would mean big audiences, they would be covered. This is not a moral issue. Audiences are what networks sell; that is why there is a Nielsen rating. But the total of the three networks’ audiences in the little bit covered in Boston, plus public television, plus the 24/7 cable news channels, would not earn enough to replace income lost by canceling insipid repeats.

As for gavel-to-gavel, there was no gavel-to-gavel coverage in the old, golden days-the radio days. That kind of coverage began in 1948, when the TV networks were young, tentative and losing money. NBC broadcast TV programs so RCA could sell TV sets; DuMont made sets and had its own network. The rest hoped for a rich tomorrow.

But once they had committed to sending technicians and journalists and equipment from New York to Philadelphia, where both conventions would meet, it was simple arithmetic to make them fill the schedule not only with convention proceedings gavel-to-gavel, but also with press conferences, candidates’ interviews and reporters talking to each other. Back in New York, the networks cut costs. Orchestras were furloughed, announcers sent home, studios darkened and air-conditioning shut off. (The only “originally scheduled” program telecast by NBC was the children’s favorite “Howdy Doody.”) Like that guy told Bob Woodward in the garage, “Follow the money.”

This explanation will not satisfy the press corps. They like conventions. It’s a great place to see old comrades, to catch up, to trade war stories. Up until 1952, the nation’s then still important railroads chipped in to run something called the Railroad Lounge, where press credentials got you in for free beer and sandwiches, lots of comfortable chairs and maybe meeting someone you had not seen since Paris during the war.

Reporters also recall fondly when coverage required only sitting at your desk watching TV. No wonder they want to bring it back.

Everybody knows by now that the expansion of primaries has taken the suspense out of conventions, that there has not been a second ballot for presidential nominee in 52 years. There is, however, a more important reason conventions are not the news events they used to be. For a quarter of a century they provided a stage for the two major American dramas of the time: civil rights and the Vietnam War.

Never again will Fannie Lou Hamer tell the platform committee how sheriffs’ deputies beat her backside and legs with truncheons when she tried to vote. Never again will a black Republican delegate from Louisiana complain to Ed Newman that young party activists dropped lighted cigarette butts in his jacket pockets. Never again will Chicago police attack young American war protesters as though they were an invading army.

Both civil rights activists and those opposing the war had come to the conventions because cameras were there. “The whole world is watching!” Remember? Well, it isn’t watching anymore. And that is why network coverage gets skimpier every four years. And that’s why old guys like me object, because we love this kind of stuff. But it’s too late for that.

Perhaps all those grizzled journalists could form clubs and re-enact old political conventions, the way Civil War buffs re-enact battles. At the end of each day we could gather, have a few beers and sob. n

Reuven Frank is a former president of NBC News.