The Networks and the Decline of the On-the-Air Televised Convention
The on-the-air networks' stake in maintaining their convention coverage is less obvious. As audiences have declined, extensive live coverage has become increasingly difficult to justify. The networks' reputations as news organizations are perhaps affected by their coverage policies but there is no reliable evidence one way or the other on this point.4
An often-heard argument is that the networks have a responsibility to cover the conventions as part of their public-service obligations as broadcast licensees. Although the news value of the conventions has declined, the conventions like the State of the Union Address are major public events and deserving of coverage for that reason alone.
Some network representatives have argued that their public service responsibility is obviated by the existence of cable news outlets that willingly provide extensive convention coverage. The implication is that the convention audience has not been substantially affected by cutbacks in network coverage and would not be greatly affected by further cutbacks or even the elimination of on-the-air coverage.
This notion, however, is flawed. For one thing, a fourth of U.S. households do not have cable service or a satellite dish and thus do not have access to these alternative sources of convention coverage. A large number of casual viewers would also be lost if the on-the-air networks chose not to carry the party conventions. The convention audience is made up of those viewers who turn on their television sets with the intention of watching the convention and those viewers who turn on their sets and just happen to catch the convention telecast. The number of viewers in this second category is much larger than might be assumed. In the Vanishing Voter survey that we conducted shortly before the Republican convention, only 19% of respondents knew that it would be held within the next two weeks (see Table 2). Viewers can hardly plan to watch the convention if a substantial number of them do not even know when it is being held. Many of the people who will see the 2000 Republican convention will do so because they happened across it in the act of watching television.
Most cable viewers routinely monitor only a small number of channels, which usually include the broadcast network channels. Thus, the likelihood that a viewer will watch a particular program is in part a function of whether that program is being televised on a preferred channel. If none of the on-the air networks carries the conventions, a large portion of the potential viewing audience would be lost. We estimate that the total audience would drop by as much as half for this reason alone.5
It is the case, moreover, that past cutbacks in on-the-air convention broadcasts have contributed to the decline in the convention audience. Although the networks have justified their cutbacks in terms of declining audience, some cutbacks have taken place after elections in which the audience actually increased or remained stable. Yet cutbacks in every case except 1992 have contributed to a drop in the convention audience in the next election.
4. In an earlier period, however, the networks used the conventions as a time to solidify their news reputations and enlarge the profile of their anchors and top correspondents. As audiences continue to fragment, one of the networks might again conclude that the conventions could serve this purpose. As news audiences continue to shrink, a network may decide (following the model of NPR, the only broadcast organization that has an expanding news audience) to target the serious news audience as a means of securing its market share.
5. This assessment is based partly on the indirect evidence provided by audience ratings for televised primary election debates during recent elections; the smaller the normal audience rating for an outlet (say, USA versus CNN versus NBC), the smaller the audience rating for the debate.
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