WASHINGTON — TELEVISION coverage of the conventions, once viewed as a gavel-to-gavel bonanza of national news, has this year been pared back by the networks to slightly longer than a sitcom each night of the conventions.
The three TV networks, which in 1988 carried at least two hours of convention coverage, have sliced it down to barely half that this year. When the Democratic Convention begins in New York on July 13, each will carry about one hour of prime-time coverage each night except next Thursday when the nominee's speech will extend coverage by about half an hour.
Twenty years ago, NBC and CBS ran 36 hours of convention coverage, while ABC ran 19 hours, according to New York Times figures. Lane Vernados, CBS executive producer for special events, explains why networks have changed their tune. "It's a fact that the conventions have became events scheduled for TV, not designed for news.
"They [the politicians] have ensured that all controversy is squeezed out of the conventions before anyone sets foot in them. It's a group of speeches promoting their causes and party, and I don't feel obliged to put it on just because they're having a convention," says Mr. Vernados.
Is the public being denied coverage of a government issue? "The public is not watching," says Vernados. "In 1988 only a third of the people were watching the conventions that were covered. The people are voting with remote control devices." Primaries more important
Richard Wald, senior vice president of ABC News, says ABC will be doing six hours of TV coverage of the convention. "ABC has had a tradition of shorter convention coverage forever....
"The essential difference for everyone is when the networks covered at great length, it was a ... time when primaries didn't carry so much weight. The political process was changed by the [George] McGovern reforms. The Democratic Party gave the weight of choice for the nominee to primaries and away from the convention. The result: The networks now cover more of the primaries, less of the conventions."
He says the networks are faced with a "double whammy": The parties have changed the basis on which the convention exists.
"The old idea of conventions no longer holds; the public knows it and no longer watches," says Mr. Wald. "I believe it is essential for the parties to reinvent conventions, for their own benefit, and so they'll be more interesting for the public to watch." TV's responsibility
At NBC, Cliff Kappler, senior producer of all convention coverage, says TV does have a civic responsibility to cover the conventions, but there is now a question of degree. "In the past, we'd get together and cover what candidates were doing in smoke-filled rooms," he says. "But the situation has evolved into a coronation and carries less of that responsibility."
He points out that "NBC found a way of dealing with PBS that comes out a benefit to all parties involved, including viewers."
NBC and PBS have joined forces in a unique arrangement that will enable viewers to see the NBC News political team behind and in front of the camera in conjunction with the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour team.
"At the prime-time hour of 10 p.m., you'll be able to see the convention on NBC, while PBS viewers continue to view it on their station," says Kappler. "The win-win for my money is you're going to see more of the NBC news team" than network economics would have allowed without the NBC-PBS meld. NewsHour goes live
Dan Werner, who is NewsHour associate executive producer, coordinating campaign coverage, says, "Up until now we've taken the program to the convention city and covered it in the regular MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, dedicating all of the hour to it.
"But this is our first foray into live coverage. We're doing a program that goes out at 8, goes off at 11. NBC is joining us for the first two hours, doing its own show at 10, Thursday at 9:30."
Americans can still see gavel-to-gavel coverage on cable's C-Span and on CNN from late afternoon to adjournment.
Tom Hannon, CNN political director, plans to have 250 people at the convention site, more than in '88. "The conventions no longer nominate as much as ratify the choice made in the primaries. The networks have a different problem. We're a general news organization. That's what we do for a living, cover news. They cover news, do entertainment, sports events. In general, network news has retrenched, given us an opportunity to serve the audience better. It's good news for us."