How Political Conventions Evolved Into TV Theater

The real stars of this week's Republican proceedings inside San Diego's graceful bayside convention center may be the 15-foot TV screens, not the live speakers.

Two huge "video walls," as GOP planners like to call them, flank the center's understated dais. With their faux-marble finish and sculpted details, the "walls" look a little like artifacts from the Temple of Dandarah. But their purpose is thoroughly modern: to project film and video cutaways and make the convention feel like fast-paced Olympics coverage to viewers who tune in from home.

Top officials here don't hide the fact that the 1996 GOP convention is a tightly planned show meant as much for a TV audience as for actual delegates. Such packaging may avoid the drone-athons of the past, but it also raises obvious questions: Will the networks acquiesce and broadcast the show unfiltered? And if this is what conventions are coming to, why have them at all?

It's been decades since conventions actually picked candidates. They aren't deliberative assemblies any more - they're pep rallies. Is that still valuable for political parties - and good for US democracy?

"Conventions now are essentially only media events," notes Michael Schudson, a communications professor at the University of California at San Diego who studies political communication.

If so, the GOP leadership has done its best to make this media event its most compelling ever. The last thing the Dole campaign wants is a repeat of Houston '92, when a thumping Pat Buchanan speech about a moral war for America's soul dominated media coverage and set an intolerant tone for the fall campaign.

This time Dole leaders are planning to tightly control each convention night's message. Each hour of proceedings will have a theme - family opportunity or economic growth. All speeches will be short, with noncandidates limited to 10 minutes, and meant to reinforce the theme of the moment.

Furthermore, each hour will feature taped cutaways of average Americans discussing the theme or filmed interviews with GOP celebrities. The whole thing is meant to satisfy audiences far more familiar with the timing of Jerry Seinfeld than the oratory of William Jennings Bryan.

The convention hall itself looks less like a place to listen to speeches than a bunting-draped talk-show set. "It's got an open look ideal for TV," says one GOP official.

There is one hitch in all this planning: The GOP doesn't control the airwaves. TV networks do, and they might well decide not to go along with the Republicans' focused plans. The big three networks are planning limited prime-time coverage each night and may opt for political commentary from correspondents over repetition of the GOP message.

C-Span will provide unblinking gavel-to-gavel coverage. But the Republican National Committee has gone so far as to buy time on the cable Family Channel, as well as set up an Internet site with convention coverage.

It's a historic irony: The power of TV coverage has increased the public-relations aspect of conventions and made them an invaluable kickoff to the fall campaign. Yet the smoother these political gatherings become, the less interested the camera. News is conflict, and as conventions have become more scripted over the years, major network coverage has declined.

That doesn't necessarily mean the meetings are becoming irrelevant, some experts argue. It may not yet be time for delegates all to stay home and for political parties to present their candidates via purchased infomercial. The reason, they say, is that conventions can be seen as layers of events. The events on the floor may be media-oriented. But any time thousands of like-minded people gather in one place, there's an exchange of ideas, techniques, and enthusiasm.

"Conventions are still important," argues Joseph Pike, a University of Delaware political scientist who studies the electoral process. "They clearly are used to energize the loyal members of parties, in the broader public as well as the delegates who attend."

Convention-bashing has been popular in the media for years, political scientists note. Much of the criticism reflects a longing for a supposed golden age of conflict, such as the 1924 Democratic convention, which nominated John Davis after 103 ballots. (Calvin Coolidge defeated Davis that fall.)

But from the first US national convention of the small Anti-Masonic Party in Baltimore in 1831, many of the gatherings served to ratify preselected candidates and bring party factions together. Ritualistic conventions meant to unify the party are not an invention of the modern age, historians say.

That doesn't mean conventions couldn't be more useful. Six years ago a blue-ribbon panel sponsored by the Center for Democracy recommended tightening convention proceedings from four nights to three and a grant of free air time for party candidates in the fall. The air time grant is moving close to reality, says center president Allen Weinstein. But he says that when this election is over, it might be time to study the utility of conventions again.

"The whole electoral process deserves much fuller and more imaginative attention, in the schools and elsewhere," he says.

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