August 27, 2008

The Elections Roller-Coaster Ride Begins on Network TV


For TV people, a busy summer is about to become busier. Political conventions loom.

"The Olympics have pressed the conventions together," says David Bohrman, head of CNN's Washington bureau.

Previous years had a one-week gap between them. Networks could gather their thoughts and their equipment.

This time, by comparison:

- On Sunday, NBC wraps up Olympic coverage.

- The next day, the Democratic convention begins. Three days later, its final night moves to a stadium.

- The following Monday - Labor Day, no less - things start all over with the Republican convention.

All of this would be easy if news people decided the conventions don't matter. They leaned that way for a while.

"Conventions ... used to really mean something," says Katie Couric, the CBS anchor. "And they still do but, in many ways, there aren't a lot of surprises."

That bottomed out with some overpackaged events.

"In 1996, I walked out of the Republican convention," Ted Koppel says. It was "nothing much more than a picture show and there wasn't any news."

And now? Koppel, formerly of ABC, will do analysis for BBC America. He no longer sees a no-news convention.

"This has been one of the most remarkable political years we've ever seen," he says. It became clear that:

- For the first time in more than a halfcentury, no incumbent president or vice president would be in the race. "Everything is going to change in Washington. ... This is, by far, the most consequential election of my lifetime," says CNN reporter John King.

- Barack Obama would be the first black presidential candidate nominated by a major party.

"Clearly, the Democrats have a historic convention coming up," says John Moody, vice president of Fox News.

In addition to the usual cable networks, the black-oriented TV One cable network will cover the Democratic convention and will follow with a late-night talk show.

That will be "irreverent. ... We will have substance and we will have some humor," promised Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University professor who will be on the show.

At the core, Dyson says, will be history. "For this to happen 40 years after (Martin Luther) King's death is so important."

The network people agree that the conventions are extra important this year. That doesn't mean more airtime though.

"We'll be doing the same amount of coverage on the network that we did four years ago," says Steve Capus, president of NBC News.

That means NBC, channel 2 and cable channel 9, plans to join coverage at 9 p.m.

Mondays (keynote speakers), Wednesdays (vice presidential nominees) and Thursdays (presidential nominees). It would skip Tuesdays, letting MSNBC, cable channel 50, focus on that night.

The other two big networks don't have a cable news channel to lean on. This year, ABC, channel 8, and CBS, channel 6, both plan to include convention coverage at 9 p.m. Tuesdays; in 2004, they skipped the night.

Fox turns things over to the Fox News Channel, which leaves PBS with bragging rights.

"Americans who want to see complete, live, gavel-to-gavel prime- time coverage ... have exactly one choice in broadcast television," says Paula Kerger, PBS' CEO.

On cable, they'll have much more. News channels plan to basically be there all day. They won't stick to the podium, says CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer. "We're not going to simply be stenographers."

There is much to do, he says. "All the major leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties (will) be there. ... It's a chance to pick their brains and hopefully do some serious reporting."

On the tube:

- What: Political conventions.

- When: Democrats, Monday-Thursday in Denver; Republicans, Sept. 1-4 in St. Paul, Minn.

- Cable and satellite: All-day coverage on CNN (channel 41), MSNBC (channel 50), Fox News Channel (channel 52) and C-SPAN (channel 44); TV One (channel 167) will be at the Democrats' convention and will have a late-night talk show.

- Broadcast: PBS, channel 11, starts with "NewsHour" at 6 and stays. Others (NBC, CBS, ABC) have their morning shows and newscasts, then may not resume coverage until 9 p.m. on most nights.

Originally published by MIKE HUGHES Gannett News Service.

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