Features

Boston blackout

News | Increasingly made-for-TV party conventions are receiving less coverage

Issue: "UN's abuse of power," July 24, 2004

Hold onto those remotes: The conventions are coming.

Democrats kick off the made-for-TV posturing with their four-day love fest in Boston, which begins on July 26. The GOP will follow in New York City in late August.

Precious little drama is expected at either gathering, despite early predictions that the Democratic nomination fight could go all the way to Boston. The spectacular implosion of the Howard Dean campaign removed any hope for real political theater, and John Kerry's last serious challenger is suddenly his best friend -- and running mate.

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With almost nothing at stake, the broadcast networks plan to do the same as most voters: Ignore the conventions. Ever since ABC's Sam Donaldson walked out of the 1996 Republican Convention to protest the lack of real news, the networks have been shrinking their coverage of both parties. This year, ABC, CBS, and NBC plan just three hours of live broadcasts spread over four days. That means political junkies will have to get their fix from cable (Fox News is increasing its coverage by about one-third compared to 2000) and the internet (CBSNews.com will carry live, gavel-to-gavel coverage).

During those precious few hours of live, primetime coverage, both parties will do their best to provide a reason for viewers to tune in. Dry policy lectures will be relegated to the daytime hours, when the delegates' seating area is often as sparsely populated as the media section. Primetime will likely be reserved for concerts, Hollywood stars, and the occasional former president.

Republicans are banking on Reagan nostalgia to attract viewers to what's sure to be a moving tribute to the former president. Though the Democrats didn't lose any beloved heroes this year, they did score a programming coup on July 12 when Mr. Reagan's son Ron announced he would appear at the Boston convention to promote stem-cell research.

Democratic leaders couldn't help gloating. "Ron Reagan's courageous pleas for stem-cell research add a powerful voice to the millions of Americans hoping for cures for their children, for their parents, and for their grandparents," said Kerry spokesman David Wade.

Though the younger Mr. Reagan insisted he would restrict his comments to the subject of stem cells, he has never made any secret of his loathing for President Bush. "This gives me a platform to educate people about stem-cell research," he told a Los Angeles gathering of television critics. "The conservative right has a rather simplistic way of characterizing it as baby killing. We're not talking about fingers and toes and brains. This is a mass of a couple hundred undifferentiated cells."

Asked whether he would at least attend the GOP's tribute to his late father, Mr. Reagan demurred. "I don't think, in good conscience, I could take the chance that somebody could read that as an endorsement of this administration," he said. "I'll support any viable candidate who can defeat Bush."

For Mr. Kerry, the convention is an important opportunity to prove he's that candidate. Polls taken immediately after he named John Edwards as his running mate failed to document the hoped-for bounce, and the candidates are still locked in a statistical dead heat. Moreover, an AP poll released July 13 showed Mr. Kerry trailing Mr. Bush by 22 points when voters were asked which man exhibited decisiveness -- a key personality trait in confronting the terrorist threat.

In the end, then, the only drama to come out of the Democratic Convention is likely to be the psychological kind: After enduring months of negative ads from the GOP, Mr. Kerry will have one clean shot at defining himself in the minds of tens of millions of Americans expected to tune in at least part of his acceptance speech on July 29. If he can convince them that he's decisive, competent, and in touch with their concerns, he could tip the deadlocked race dramatically in his favor.

For a modern-day political convention, that might qualify as real news.

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