Who's tuning in to L.A.

Half of those who watch are political junkies, polls say. The others just wander in for a couple of minutes.

Regina Siergiej was nonchalantly flipping through the channels on Monday night when the blond, bespectacled youngster stumbled upon President Clinton giving his speech. He caught her attention, so much so that she called her dad down from his computer upstairs to join her.

"Because it was interesting and the president was speaking," she says.

Throughout the week, millions of Americans found themselves in Regina's place, accidental tourists at the Democratic National Convention.

Some stayed just a few minutes, while others like Regina of Danbury, Conn., got caught up in the speechifying and put down the remote for the night.

And, of course, there are those few million political junkies who raced through dinner to be sure not to miss a minute of the four-day political ritual unfolding in Los Angeles.

Early ratings indicate that the Democrats did better than the Republicans two weeks ago in diverting America's attention away from the likes of "Law & Order."

Nonetheless, a smaller percentage of the American population was watching its democracy in progress than four years ago and even fewer than eight years ago. In this age of political apathy, call those who are tuned in, those dedicated few, the proud and the political - even if only accidentally.

"There are about 5 percent of the American public who are very interested in politics. They tend to be higher educated, more men than women, more older people than young," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center for the People and the Press. "They just like politics."

For Regina, the accidental viewer, it was the excitement of getting a glimpse of "what's happening" in the world from the inside perspective that kept her watching.

She found Clinton to be "easy to understand," and that engaged her.

But for Daedre Levine, a Democratic activist and fundraiser, the stakes were much higher.

"I'm watching because I'm still very optimistic about what this country can accomplish and the healing of our American family," she says. "But I'm also watching for the inspiration, this work is too hard and the problems are too grand to face without it."

Ms. Levine had a group of "not-so-political" friends over last night for dinner and to watch Vice President Al Gore's speech.

They're part of a group called "deliberate" viewers in a study done by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government's Vanishing Voter Project. They're people who have made a conscious decision to watch the convention.

During the GOP extravaganza, which was held in Philadelphia two weeks ago, the Vanishing Voter project found that only half of Americans tuned in to any of the festivities at all.

Ratings for the convention week averaged 11.9 points, according to the study. Four years earlier, the Republican convention averaged 16.9 rating points, which was down from 21.3 rating points in 1992.

The Democrats, at least on the first night of their convention, did much better, pulling in about a million more viewers than they did four years ago.

Among those who were watching, the Vanishing Voter poll asked if it was a deliberate decision, or, as in Regina's case, an inadvertent happenstance. For the 50 percent who watched anything at all, it split about 50/50.

Of those who made a conscious decision to tune in, nearly 75 percent watched an hour or more of coverage, compared with only 18 percent of inadvertent viewers.

Albert Brooks, who originally hails from Georgia but has been shining shoes on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street for more than 30 years, says he deliberately tuned in. But Mr. Brooks was one of the 16 percent of "deliberate viewers" who watched for a half an hour or less.

Still, he thinks he got a good sense of what was going on.

"The Republicans didn't do much for me, even though they tried," Brooks says, shaking his head. "The Democrats are the ones who take care of the working folk - they want to raise the minimum wage."

Brooks says he couldn't survive on minimum wage, "just couldn't do it," which is why he shines shoes. He makes more money.

It's also why he tuned in again last night. He wants to be sure the Democrats don't lose sight of people like him.

Fourth-grade teacher Jason Inzirillo from Long Island is one of the vanishing viewers.

As of Wednesday, he hadn't watched a minute of either convention, although he did read about some of the goings-on in the paper.

Mr. Inzirillo is leaning toward the Green Party's Ralph Nader, because he feels as though Democrats and Republicans have become one and the same. He also doesn't feel as though either party speaks to people his age.

"They don't talk enough to us," says the young teacher. "They do the MTV thing, but they have to do more than just talk."

Inzirillo is exactly the kind of person that UCLA's Nancy Snow wants to engage.

The assistant director of the Center for Communications blames the media, in part, for the lagging interest in the conventions.

Not just because the networks are airing less of the activities, leaving the bulk of the convention coverage to their cable counterparts, but also because of the way they report on politics in general.

"The national media concentrates on the 'elites'.... it doesn't allow for an ongoing conversation about what's going on in the world around us," she says.

Ms. Snow is also confident that many people who tuned out the conventions are not turned off from politics completely.

She believes they just need to make the connection between what happens in their daily lives and the public policy decisions made in Washington.

Levine agrees whole-heartedly, although she's not sure how to go about it.

"I wish I could figure out the characteristics that we all share that make some of us interested in voting and excited about the process," she says. "I'd like to bottle it and give it to everybody else."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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