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Is There a Future for On-the-Air Televised Conventions?
Panel Discussion Background Paper


by Thomas E. Patterson
Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Presented July 30, 2000
Philadelphia, PA


  1. Introduction
  2. The Parties and the Decline of the On-the-Air Televised Convention
  3. The Networks and the Decline of the On-the-Air Televised Convention
  4. The Public and the Decline of the On-the-Air Televised Convention
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Once the highlight of the presidential campaign, the on-the-air televised convention is teetering on the brink of extinction (see Figure 1). Even as late as 1976, the three major networks provided the viewer with more than 50 hours of convention coverage. By 1996, their broadcasts had shrunk to 12 hours of coverage. A new low will almost certainly be reached in 2000. ABC and CBS are broadcasting only 5 hours of the GOP convention and NBC is limiting its coverage to half that amount. If the Democratic convention receives the same treatment, a viewer of the major on-the-air networks will have access to only 10 hours of convention coverage.1

  Fig. 1: On-the-Air Convention Coverage and Audience Ratings, 1960-1996
On-the-Air Convention Coverage and Audience Ratings, 1960-1996
Source for ratings in this and subsequent figures: Nielsen Media Research.

The convention audience has also declined, although less dramatically. The 1976 conventions had an average prime-time rating of 28.4 points. By 1996, the average had dropped to 16.9 and is likely to be even lower in 2000. Our recent survey for the Vanishing Voter Project found a sharp decline in Americans' interest in the televised conventions (see Table 1). In a 1996 pre-convention survey, 53% of respondents said they planned to watch most or some of the conventions. In our 2000 survey, only 34% expressed this intention.

Table 1. How Much of the Conventions Do You Plan to Watch?  
  1996 2000
Most/Some 53% 34%
Little/None 47% 66%
Results from identically worded questions: Yankelovich survey, 1996; Vanishing Voter survey, 2000.

Is the end near for the on-the-air televised convention? Would its demise be a serious loss to our public life? If so, can it be saved?

Our panel will address these questions. This paper provides background information for the discussion. It briefly describes factors that have contributed to the decline of on-the-air conventions; it also provides reasons why they might be worth preserving.

The Parties and the Decline of the On-the-Air Televised Convention >>


1. In this paper, the terms "network," "networks" and "on-the-air networks" are a reference to ABC, CBS, and NBC only. References to total hours of network coverage are based on the maximum number of hours that an individual viewer could have watched the conventions live on the networks. Thus, if all three networks were broadcasting the same hour of a convention, it would count as a single hour of network coverage. If only one network was broadcasting a particular hour, it also would count as a single hour of coverage.

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