Conventional Wisdom

It's been a week since the last balloon hit the floor. So now is as good a time as any to review the two recent major-party political conventions and ask, What about the future?

We've pointed out before that with the nomination determined by primary and not convention delegates, most of the oomph went out of the conventions long ago. Yet they remain valuable as the only time a political party - or rather 50-plus state and territorial parties - meet as a national body. They provide an opportunity to pump up the troops, grab the spotlight, and showcase up-and-coming political talent.

But four days of scripted-for-TV stage show is too much to sustain public interest, given the lack of drama. And the staging has proved too much for the network news departments to swallow.

Pundits have widely noted that TV viewership of the conventions was down markedly compared with four years ago. But that does not mean the public is completely uninterested: The GOP convention drew larger ratings than the most popular TV show the same week - "Seinfeld" - if the audiences of ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC were added together. Throw in PBS, C-Span, Comedy Central, and the Family Channel, and the ratings were even higher.

Some say the public's complaint is not so much with the conventions as with the networks' coverage. On some nights, during two hours of prime-time coverage, the networks deigned to show less than half an hour from the podium. The rest of the time was filled with interviews and analysis, with reporters commenting on what speakers said without even giving viewers the privilege of hearing it first hand. Those who wanted more were driven to cable.

Rather than get into a chicken-and-egg argument over whose fault this is - whether the networks have cut coverage because the conventions are "infomercials" or the conventions are scripted because that's the only way the parties can get their message past the network filters - we propose a format change that could benefit everyone.

In the year 2000, the parties should have two-night conventions of three hours each night. During the first night, they could adopt brief declarations of principles instead of meaningless platforms, nominate the presidential candidate, and conduct the roll-call vote. On the second night, they could nominate the vice-presidential candidate and the two could give their acceptance speeches. The networks would agree to cover the whole three hours, and to show the nominating and acceptance speeches in their entirety.

While the multiplication of news-oriented cable channels is good, it would be unhealthy for the networks to abandon coverage of the conventions or to limit it to spot reports. After all, almost 40 percent of the population doesn't have cable TV. People shouldn't have to pay a monthly fee to see one of the most important events in American political life.

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