Commission Calls for Change in National Political Conventions

NATIONAL political conventions - filled with speeches, music, balloons, and ballyhoo - are losing their appeal to American voters. Now a group of political experts is calling for change. A new study by the Commission on National Political Conventions recommends compressing these quadrennial events to accommodate the needs of television, and possibly boost audiences.

The national conventions get huge media coverage from CBS, ABC, NBC, C-SPAN, CNN, and other outlets. In 1988, some 3,800 reporters and other media representatives covered the two major party gatherings in Atlanta and New Orleans.

Even so, public interest waned. ``[The] Republican convention week was the lowest ratings week in network history,'' says George Watson, Washington bureau chief for ABC News.

The reason is obvious. Conventions no longer are the battlegrounds where the parties pick their nominees, as they were before 1972.

The struggle for the presidential nomination is waged in the primaries and caucuses that begin months earlier in Iowa and New Hampshire. By the time the candidates reach the national conventions, the fight is over - and the public knows the outcome.

In 1988, George Bush tried to sustain public interest in the convention by withholding his choice of Dan Quayle for vice president until convention week.

The 32-member commission on conventions confronts the problem of declining audiences head-on. The commission, organized by the Center for Democracy, was co-chaired by former Republican chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. and former Democratic chairman Charles Manatt.

Mr. Fahrenkopf and Mr. Manatt would trim the conventions from four nights to three. In exchange, the commission recommends that the major networks grant three hours of prime time to the parties in September and October to present their programs to the American people.

Commission member David Gergen, who once served in the Reagan White House, says that ``in our political system today ... the parties are seen, perhaps too much, in the summer at the political conventions and seen too little during the fall.''

TV could change that, he says.

``People are not voting ... because of the quality of the fall campaigns. And perhaps one way to get at this is [through] a possible trade-off. If the parties went to three nights ... is there a way we can increase the ... network coverage in the fall?''

The commission found that not only are conventions changing, but the news coverage is changing also. TV networks, which once monitored conventions gavel to gavel, have cut back. The bulk of their reporting takes place during prime time, Sunday through Wednesday, on the four days of each convention.

However, other outlets have rushed to offer their own wall-to-wall coverage. Not only do C-SPAN, CNN, and National Public Radio offer full coverage, they are supplemented by a growing number of local TV stations (350 in 1988) which often provide extensive coverage of their own.

Yet the commission found that even with supplemental coverage, most Americans still learn about the two parties and their nominees through the traditional television networks. It remains crucial for both parties to reach that audience. The best way may be through streamlined, shortened sessions of the convention, the commission concluded.

The proposal drew some dissent on the commission. Former broadcasters Ken Bode and Marvin Kalb contended that ``the parties already have gone too far in fashioning the schedule ... to what they think will make interesting television.''

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