The beginning of the end was in July 1984. Or was it in August 1948? Perhaps it was in 2000, or maybe it was this year.
We’re talking about television coverage of political conventions, about politics and mass media. We’re talking about the knee-jerk reaction that the sky is continually falling. We should resist and, instead, take certain moments as signals that change is coming, that innovation is needed and about to happen. We’re in one of those moments right now.
First, some history.
It is 1984, on the second night of the Democratic Convention in San Francisco. Jesse Jackson’s speech, expected to be the highlight of the night, is late. ABC News has the temerity to sign off and go to a rerun of “Hart to Hart,” a canceled dramatic series with Robert Wagner. They come back 26 minutes later, shortly before the Rev. Jackson takes the podium.
It was a rupture in the television universe. Puritans decried it. NBC News and CBS News sat upright on their high horses and talked about irresponsibility and the obligation for networks to put the conventions on the air, all night, each night. Looking back from now, we see that 1984 convention as the moment broadcast television changed the way it covers conventions. Twenty years later, in 2004, ABC, CBS and NBC completely ignored one night of each convention and aired only about an hour on each of the other three nights. But back in that low-ceilinged hall in downtown San Francisco, what ABC News did was heresy and was attacked and ridiculed by Those Who Knew Things.
In 1948 there was a quieter yet ultimately a more significant signal of change. The convention city: Philadelphia. Radio ruled the day. Robert Trout, the CBS radio anchor, barely noticed the upstart in the hall: television. Many years later he told me that the sense among Those Who Knew Things was that it was a passing fad.
One thing I have learned about conventions and television and the “future” and change is that stagnation is death. Media change. Audiences change. Technology changes. The world changes, and we who produce these events need to change with it or audiences will look elsewhere. Viewers turn to media that suit their lives, for the coverage they can live and feel and the broadcast that brings them as close to the action as possible.
It’s official. The broadcast networks are no longer the source they used to be for political coverage. The conventions were evidence of that. Resist the knee-jerk reaction. The sky is not falling. We should not decry the coming change. We should embrace it. And many of us, namely the cable nets, the news Web sites and the blogs, have done just that.
Here at CNN, we’re bringing the broadcast to the convention floor, to the heart of the convention city, to the NASDAQ and to the battleground states. We’re using technology to bring viewers closer to the action than ever before, seizing every opportunity to bring coverage of politics into the future. The coverage hasn’t gone away, it’s actually become much larger, much more intense and much more informed. It’s worth watching. n
David Bohrman is VP of news and production and the Washington bureau chief for CNN.