THE Democrats are finally beginning to follow the Republican lead in how they use their national convention - as a four-day television commercial. So say the network executives running coverage of the event and Democratic strategists. Democratic planners themselves deny they are following in Republican footsteps. But they concede that the national party convention has become a television soapbox for sending messages and images to the public.
The delegates here are most important, Democratic organizers say, as a cast of thousands in the television spectacle.
The upshot is that this year's convention is faster moving and more tightly packed into prime time than previous Democratic conventions.
``It's pretty simple,'' says convention chairman Don Fowler. ``We live in a television age, and the networks are giving us about two hours of prime-time air a night.''
Mr. Fowler has sought to use those two hours to the party's maximum advantage. He is putting its biggest stars on when the most people are watching, keeping most speeches to six to eight minutes, and pounding away at consistent themes: family, innovation, and education.
``They're doing what the Republicans have done for years,'' says David Buksbaum, vice-president for political coverage at CBS.
``The Democrats have finally learned from the Republicans that they need to organize a production,'' says Ed Turner, executive vice-president at Cable News Network. The Democrats still lag behind, though. ``The Republicans are like dealing with a Prussian drill team,'' Mr. Turner says.
The object for the Democrats is to get the networks to carry as much of their convention as possible.
The overall message the Democrats want to send into American living rooms is of forward-thinking competence. As Fowler puts it: ``We can handle the real problems of real people today and tomorrow.''
What the Democrats need from this convention, says Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic consultant and strategist, is to appear united and to appear moderate. Unity is most important, he adds, because it will show on television.
``Television has become more and more important to the convention process because you're staging a four-day commercial,'' says Gordon R. Wynne Jr., a Texas lawyer and former television producer who has advised the past four Democratic conventions.
After hiring two Hollywood producers of entertainment spectacles, Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion, the Democrats took some flak for ``glitz.'' Mr. Smith and Mr. Hemion are veteran producers of musical variety shows who have recently produced such extravaganzas as Ronald Reagan's second inauguration and Nancy Reagan's annual Christmas show.
Smith and Hemion reign from a control booth directly over the camera stand facing the podium.
``You can control 60 to 70 percent of the timetable,'' Mr. Wynne notes. The rest happens spontaneously in the push and pull of convention politics.
This spring, Smith and Hemion invited four network executives for political coverage to an off-the-record dinner where they floated ideas and asked what the networks would broadcast.
Beyond live coverage of three major speeches, the executives withheld any assurances. ``We ought not to be in the position of dictating what they should or should not put on in their convention,'' says Joseph Angotti of NBC.