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July 31, 2000 Contact:
Brian Faith (202) 667-0901
Eric Andersen (617) 495-8269

Networks, Party Chairs Differ Sharply on Obligation of TV Networks to Cover Conventions

Convention Report: Is There a Future for On-the-Air Televised Conventions? Transcript of Panel Discussion

PHILADELPHIA Do the major TV networks have a special obligation due to their audience size and as stewards of the public airwaves to carry significant portions of the national political conventions? That was the question debated today by representatives of the networks and the Republican and Democratic Party chairs, with CBS, ABC, and NBC saying no, and CNN and the party leaders answering yes.

"It boils down to news judgment. If something important happens, we'll cover it. If it doesn't, we won't."

"Whether there's news or not, they're important," CNN anchor Judy Woodruff said, at a panel discussion hosted by Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "These conventions are when people start to pay attention."

At the opening of the roundtable, Alex S. Jones, Director of the Shorenstein Center, noted that 25 million registered voters don't have access to cable television or satellite TV, and thus are held captive to network coverage. Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson called this "the cable chasm."

But CBS News President Andrew Heyward said the issue of network TV coverage shouldn't be framed as an ethical or moral question. He said it was purely a matter of whether there was news, and complained that the conventions and politics in general were now perceived by the public as "inauthentic."

ABC News Nightline's Chris Bury echoed the view, saying, "It boils down to news judgment. If something important happens, we'll cover it. If it doesn't, we won't."

The party chairs vigorously disagreed. "The networks' decision [to limit coverage] is flat out unconscionable," said Democratic National Committee General Chair Ed Rendell. While Nicholson said the question should be, "How important are the conventions themselves not to the media or to the parties, but to the American people and voters?"

And Woodruff said that regardless of the scripted nature of the conventions that both parties now orchestrate, the networks are quite capable of covering the issues outside the parameters set by the parties and could create fascinating coverage in creative ways.

Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Center's Washington satellite office, expressed dismay that the three major networks no longer treated the conventions as an opportunity to showcase their political coverage. Kalb, a long-time CBS and NBC correspondent, contrasted today's curtailed coverage to a time when platoons of the best known network journalists would compete on the convention floor for the audience's attention.

According to a new Shorenstein Center survey released today, only a third (34%) of Americans plan to watch the conventions, a sharp decline from the 53% who said they would four years ago. But more than four in ten (44%) said they were very interested in seeing the nominees' acceptance speech. Only one in ten Americans even knew when the Republican National Convention would be held within the next two weeks.

Leaders of the Shorenstein Center said that conventions have traditionally been a time when voters focus on the candidates and nearly all presidential hopefuls have received a "bounce" from the convention. Despite the decline in the convention's "news value," they are "major public events and deserving of coverage for that reason alone," they said. They also warned that parties pay a price for declining coverage, noting that, "The conventions are a key campaign moment the key moment of the summer and early fall," as Harvard professor Thomas E. Patterson wrote in a paper released today.

If the network news broadcasts were cut back the same way as the conventions, the newscasts would now be only six minutes long.

"A significant number of voters will choose their candidate during the convention period," according to Patterson. "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."

Patterson also warned that the reduced role of TV could hurt the parties' ability to interest young people. "In an earlier era, the on-the-air televised convention was to the parties what the World Series was to baseball. It served to kindle interest in party politics among children and adolescents," he wrote.

"The networks' argument that interested viewers can always turn to cable channels ignores the fact that a fourth of U.S. households don't have cable service," said Jones, a former Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter for The New York Times. "Many convention viewers simply happen across the coverage when they turn on their TVs. That's an especially important factor as our survey shows that few Americans are even aware that the conventions are taking place."

Patterson, the Co-Director of the Shorenstein Center's Vanishing Voter Project, said that network coverage would decline this year to only five hours, down sharply from the previous low of 12 hours in 1996, and one-tenth of the 50 hours of coverage the three major networks provided as late as 1976. Patterson said that the convention TV audience had also declined, although less dramatically, in the last quarter-century. The 1976 conventions had an average prime-time rating of 28.4 points, which declined to 16.9 points in 1996.

Patterson said there is a close correlation between the decline in convention viewing and voter turnout, but a closer correlation between the drop in viewing and the audience for network evening news. And, if the network news broadcasts were cut back the same way as the conventions, the newscasts would now be only six minutes.

The survey, conducted July 19-23, found that only 19% even knew roughly when the Republican National Convention was being held. The nominee's acceptance speech was the main attraction for survey respondents, and a quarter (24%) said they were very interested in seeing the nominee's biographical film. Far fewer were interested in seeing journalists' analysis, with only 14% saying they were "very interested" in media commentary.

The Vanishing Voter Project is a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Funding for the project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project is co-directed by Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and by Marvin Kalb, Executive Director of the Shorenstein Center's office in Washington.

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