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The Public and the Decline of the On-the-Air Televised Convention

Voter turnout has declined substantially since 1960, indicating a diminishing public interest in election politics. It is not surprising that convention viewing has also declined during this period and, in fact, there is a close correlation between the two trends.

The correlation between the decline of the convention audience and the decline in the on-the-air networks' evening news audience is even closer. As cable subscriptions increased during the 1980s, the network evening news audience gradually eroded. Before cable, the networks practically had a lock on the 6:30 pm time slot with more than 80% of viewers tuned to the evening news. Today, fewer than 50% of viewers watch the network news at the dinner hour.

Fig. 3: Convention and News Ratings
Convention and News Ratings

As Figure 3 indicates, the relative decline in the convention audience is nearly identical to that of the evening news audience. The significance of this pattern is that it refutes any simple claim that the conventions are particularly unappealing to today's public: in relative terms, the televised conventions are no more and no less appealing to the public than other forms of news and public affairs programming. Any justification for the reduction or elimination of convention coverage that is based purely on audience decline could be applied across the board. If the evening newscasts had been cut as their audiences declined to the same degree as the convention coverage, the network evening newscasts today would be about 6 minutes long.

Why do people watch the conventions? Just as with other forms of public affairs programming, a general interest in politics and public affairs is the primary factor. Convention viewing is also related to partisanship. Republicans are somewhat more likely to watch the GOP convention while Democrats make up a larger share of the Democratic convention audience. And as indicated previously, some of the audience is watching partly because they happened to come across the convention while sitting in front of the television set.

According to our recent Vanishing Voter national survey, the main attraction of today's conventions is the candidates' acceptance speeches (see Table 3). People are drawn to these speeches because they are the one and only realistic opportunity during this age of 10-second soundbites and 30-second ads to listen at length to what the nominees propose to do if elected.

  Table 3. Very Interested in Seeing&
Nominee's Acceptance Speech 44%
Roll Call 36%
Nominee's Biographical Film 24%
Interviews with Party Leaders 20%
Journalists' Analysis 14%

The least appealing aspect of convention coverage is the media commentary. Only 14% percent of the respondents in the Vanishing Voter survey indicated that this aspect of convention coverage was of keen interest. The public would like more spontaneity in the convention coverage, but they do not seek it from journalists. As Table 3 shows, they actually would rather watch the nominees' canned documentaries than listen to journalists' analysis.

From the public's perspective, the most substantial argument for strengthening the on-the-air convention is the impact of convention exposure on people's involvement in the campaign and their information about the candidates. The conventions are a time when public interest in the campaign is sparked and when public learning is heightened.

  Fig. 4: Public Involvement in the 2000 Campaign
Public Involvement in the 2000 Campaign
Data in chart calculated by averaging the responses to four suvey questions whether people say they are currently paying close attention to the campaign, and whether in the past day they were thinking about the campaign, talking about it, or following it in the news.

The Vanishing Voter Project has tracked public involvement in the 2000 campaign through weekly national surveys since early November. The public's involvement does not build slowly as the campaign winds its way to November. Instead, involvement rises and falls as key events in the campaign come and go (see Figure 4). It is further the case that citizens tend to acquire information about the candidates and issues only during peak involvement periods. The public's awareness of Bush and Gore's policy stands actually declined when the campaign went into hibernation after Super Tuesday.

The conventions are a key campaign moment-the key moment-of the summer and early fall. The more substantial the public's involvement in this period the more substantial their consideration of the issues and the candidates. The on-the-air convention, despite its weakened state, is a critical factor in heightening the campaign involvement of an electorate that is increasingly politically disengaged. A significant number of voters will choose their candidate during the convention period. The quality of these decisions will rest partly on the public's willingness to engage the campaign more fully, which depends partly on the prominence of the on-the-air convention coverage.

Whether the on-the-air televised convention can be revitalized is an open question. The answer may depend on the willingness of the parties and the networks to accommodate each other's needs. One idea that has been suggested is for the parties to shorten the conventions to two evenings, which the networks would then cover gavel-to-gavel. Whether this or some other alternative has support within both the parties and the networks is among the topics that our panel can be expected to explore.

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