Show-biz producers help conventions preen for TV. Podium design, colors, music, and run-throughs get extra-special attention
New York — IF the '88 Republican and Democratic party conventions have a show-biz sheen, the credit goes to some Broadway and television producers whose work includes shows like ``Baryshnikov on Broadway'' and the 1986 Statue of Liberty centennial gala. This year both parties engaged producers with theatrical savvy to help choreograph and apply pancake makeup to these ancient instruments of democracy, in the hope of making them more effective prime-time media events.
After all, the conventions represent a chance to woo millions of voters in ways that 30-second commercial spots can't. And the media have turned out in force, with more than 13,000 reporters present.
Describing his goal at the New Orleans event, Mark Goode, the ``program producer'' of the Republican convention, says, ``The impression we would like to leave is that George Bush is infinitely qualified and by far the best man to guide the destiny of this country for the next four years.''
Gary Smith, who produced the Democratic convention in Atlanta, describes his mandate from the Democratic National Committee more directly in terms of the TV image: ``There's no question but that the overall intention of the DNC was to bring in somebody who had the best understanding of how to make the Democratic convention work on TV as best it could - not only in the way it looked but in terms of the content and the general environment and energy.''
For Mr. Smith's team, this meant ``designing the Democratic arena, the sound system, the lighting - in short making the Omni work as a television studio.'' It also meant coaching the participants.
In a room below the Atlanta podium, there was an exact podium replica, complete with telephones, monitors, lighting fixtures, and VCRs, where speakers could practice their delivery and then watch themselves on tape. Almost all of them took advantage of this service, Smith, reached by phone in California, recalls.
That may be one of the reasons that Ann Richards's Democratic keynote address had the wry one-liners and expert comic timing of a Johnny Carson monologue.
The Republican approach appears to be a little less circumscribed by TV. For one thing, Mark Goode denies that entertainment and ratings played an important part in the convention planning. For another, he brings to the job not only a background in network programming, but political credentials as well.
Mr. Goode served on Richard Nixon's White House staff for two years, and as an adviser to Gerald Ford during the 1976 campaign and to Ronald Reagan in 1980. He was a consultant to the Reagan administration for its first three years and served as producer of the 1984 Republican convention.
``My role here,'' Goode said by phone from New Orleans, ``is not strictly as producer: I am a participant in the group which plans and executes the convention, including things political and philosophical.
``Our accent is on substance, and anything we do is really to add variety, color, and excitement to support that substance. Entertainment is secondary. ... As producers, we can provide the best possible forum for [Bush]. But by and large, everything pales by comparison with how he himself performs his role at the convention.''
The Democrats' Smith no doubt would agree that, no matter how good their coaching, speakers can turn unpredictable in front of a microphone. Smith says he still can't quite understand what went wrong with Gov. Bill Clinton's nominating speech, which had been timed for 17 minutes but actually ran 32.
Like all the Democrats' scheduled speakers, Mr. Clinton was signaled with a green light to start wrapping up the speech when 80 percent of his time had elapsed, and with a red light when it was gone. ``But I guess it was his honest enthusiasm for the nominee that caused him to forget time and the reaction of the audience,'' Smith says.
Smith, a partner with Dwight Hemion in Smith-Hemion Productions, an Emmy-winning company with 22 years' experience putting together such variety programs as ``Baryshnikov on Broadway'' and ABC's 1986 ``Liberty Weekend'' gala, says one major problem his team faced was to present the Democratic Party as unified at a time when the news coverage addressed the multiplicity of conflicting issues within the party. ``We chose to design a podium so that there would not seem to be a wall between the speakers and the audience. We created videos of delegates and chose music with the express purpose of bringing people together, sharing the emotion of the moment and the historical significance of what was going on.''
For his part, Goode has tried to make the 80,000-seat Superdome stadium a more intimate place for the Republicans by using the Superdome curtain, which divides the stadium almost in half and allows for 35,000 people to be accommodated in the front area. That leaves the space behind the curtain for a work area.
Unlike the Democrats, Goode has used old-fashioned flag-matching shades of red, white, and blue in his motifs. These colors ``represent all-American patriotism and the spirit that Ronald Reagan has given back to the country and which George Bush will perpetuate,'' Goode says. He has also planned a deluge of balloons to cap off Bush's acceptance speech tomorrow night - more than 150,000 of them, or ``10 times more than the Democrats had,'' he boasts.
Goode and Smith agree that the convention spectacle may already have reached its peak - at least on network TV.
Smith says, ``I don't believe the commercial networks will cover the political conventions in 1992.'' He predicts they will air nothing but summaries of the highlights at the end of the evening, something like what Ted Koppel does now on ``Nightline.'' Gavel-to-gavel coverage will be available only on cable's CNN and C-SPAN, he adds.
``Frankly,'' says Smith, that change ``may be rather healthy, because, with the primary process and poll-taking, there are very few surprises left for the convention anyway. So the political parties would be able to say, `Fine, let's not worry anymore about trying to focus everything for network television's two-hour window; now we can go back to the business of doing a proper convention without worrying about who's doing what in prime time.'''
Smith is amused that, although the news people he dealt with before the convention told him they were interested only in news rather than success in the ratings, the first thing the networks complained about when the convention was over was the low ratings.
``I found that a bit of hypocrisy,'' he says. ``However, you shouldn't believe the figures the networks are releasing. It is true that their ratings were 9 percent lower. But when you add the CNN and C-SPAN audiences, the actual ratings for the convention were probably higher than they have ever been.''
Has this year's kind of ``staged'' convention coverage benefited the public?
``Yes,'' Smith says. ``We helped them find a focus. People have told us it was the best convention coverage they have ever seen - they understood a lot more, got to know the people involved better. You must remember that the networks and the party have different priorities.'' Goode says the Democratic convention was ``the best job the Democrats have done - possibly ever ... certainly in recent memory. Viewers were left with a positive impression, and that was accomplished politically as well as production-wise.''
Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.