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When Political Conventions Go Virtual, What Happens to the Traditional TV Coverage?

The pandemic provides an opportunity to reimagine how the broadcast networks cover the substance of the fall campaigns.

August 10, 2020
Chris Maddaloni/Getty

A week before the opening of the first virtual political convention in history (when the Democrats are going to gather nowhere and everywhere to nominate Joe Biden) the identity of the vice-presidential nominee is the not the only mystery hovering over the disembodied proceedings. Almost as important is how much coverage the still influential broadcast TV networks will devote to this summertime pageant of democracy and the Republican Convention to follow on August 24.

At the moment, it appears that ABC, CBS and NBC will continue to adhere to the 21st century coverage pattern by devoting an hour of prime time to the political speechifying on each of the four nights of both conventions. But without anchor booths, delegates on the floor, and rapturous spectators in the galleries, it remains an open question whether the restless network cameras will soon become bored with Zoom boxes and carefully curated bookcases as backdrops.

Every four years, the broadcast networks resist the beguiling temptation to totally cede convention coverage to cable and PBS. The decision to forsake lucrative prime-time programming during the hour between 10 and 11 p.m. is probably motivated less by civic obligation and more by fears of prompting an uproar on Capitol Hill.

The pandemic may ultimately provide the excuse to end this tradition that dates back to the dawn of television in the 1950s. Long gone is the era when broadcast network television coverage amounted to roadblock television. In the days before cable (yes, American democracy once survived without Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC), the only way that TV viewers could avoid the conventions was to tune into an independent station showing reruns of ancient sitcoms or take the radical step of turning off the set entirely.

Even during the heyday of old-time convention coverage anchored by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC and Walter Cronkite on CBS, there were tensions between political tradition and the demands of easily distracted TV viewers. In 1956, when gavel-to-gavel coverage was the norm, a wire-service story in the New York Times was headlined, “TV Shortens Oratory.” Because of easily bored television viewers, nominating speeches at the Democratic Convention in Chicago were truncated to 15 minutes, seconding speeches were snipped to 10 minutes and lengthy floor demonstrations were ruled out.

During the 1980s, the networks abandoned gavel-to-gavel coverage, as TV executives grumbled about the ratings and advertising losses at the transition moment when conventions turned into little more than syncopated pep rallies. ABC’s Richard Wald shrewdly told the New York Times in 1983, “The weight of decision-making has shifted from the conventions to voters in the primaries.”

Even Donald Trump’s supposed mastery of television could not prevent the 2016 conventions from turning into a ratings sinkhole. In hindsight, it may seem surprising that the Democrats and Hillary Clinton outdrew Trump’s GOP coronation, according to Nielsen ratings of broadcast and cable TV.

Whether or not the broadcast networks even devote an hour a night to chronicling the upcoming conventions, the evidence suggests that 2020 is the end of the line for traditional on-air coverage. But would anything really be lost if the 2024 conventions exclusively became the province of cable TV, PBS and social media fees? With Netflix and 900 cable channels, there is simply no way to force feed politics to Americans who either don’t care or prefer to devote August evenings to vacation pleasures.

Yet it would be unfortunate if the fall debates represented the only sustained commitment by broadcast TV to campaign coverage before the Election Night specials. Conventions remind voters that political parties are more than the presidential and vice-presidential nominees. They are an amalgam of the past (both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are slated to speak at next week’s convention), the present, and the future (Obama, then running for the Senate, was showcased by the Democrats in 2004). Watching four hours of convention oratory offers a crash course in the ideologies that bind each party together.

Yes, conventions are a “dinosaur,” a put-down used by an ABC executive way back in 1984.

But the idealistic hope would be that both the broadcast and cable networks would work together in 2024 to devote a few primetime hours in September and October to highlighting the political appeals of both parties. Maybe the format would be speeches combined with a question-and-answer format. Maybe it would be journalistically valid lengthy biographical profiles of both nominees and their running mates.

The goal would be to maintain the last remnants of television’s once robust commitment to educating citizens in a democracy. It will be sad if traditional conventions did indeed end in 2016. But what is most important is what will replace prime-time broadcast network TV convention coverage in 2024. If the answer is nothing, then another norm of American democracy will crumble from neglect and, yes, corporate greed.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.