News Divisions Brace for Donald Trump Spectacle at GOP Convention

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Donald Trump

“Is it going to look like a Vegas show from the 80s? Is it going to look like a Miss Universe pageant?" asks NBC's Chuck Todd.

With Donald Trump’s emergence as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, the focus has shifted from a possible brokered convention to one that will have all the earmarks of a P.T. Barnum-style spectacle.

“Now you’re giving Donald Trump time to plan,” says Chuck Todd, NBC News' political director and moderator of Meet the Press. “He doesn’t do anything small. Is it going to look like a Vegas show from the 80s? Is it going to look like a Miss Universe pageant? Is it going to look like one of his big hotel openings? The one thing he isn’t going to do is something low-key.”

Trump of course is a master brander and media manipulator, but he’s also an experienced event planner with a tendency to micromanage. On the campaign trail, he’s known to check with the sound crew himself to make sure his entrance music is just right. And so while the networks won’t have to cram to cover what could have been the first brokered convention since 1976, they are still facing the prospect of a highly unusual event, instead of what in the recent past have amounted to four-day infomercials for the country's respective political parties. Given Trump’s standing with the Republican party leadership, one storyline could be who does not show up to the convention, which begins July 18 in Cleveland.

“This may be the first major party convention where you don’t see any former presidents or nominees show up,” adds Todd. “It’s possible we don’t see a single member of the Bush family come to the convention. When was the last time that happened?” On the campaign trail, Trump famously tarred vanquished competitor Jeb Bush as “low energy” and asserted that Bush was “an embarrassment to his family.”

Already the election has generated unprecedented viewer interest. A record 24 million people tuned in to Fox’s first GOP debate last August, and CNN’s average audience has doubled to 435,000 viewers a night since Jan. 1 in its target 25-to-54 demographic. Cable news is gearing up to devote significant resources and airtime to the conventions. Fox News will have several programs originating from the conventions including Bret Baier's Special Report and Megyn Kelly's The Kelly File. CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker has said the network will cover the conventions gavel-to-gavel.

The broadcast networks, which usually dedicate just one primetime hour on three of the four nights, are still weighing whether to expand coverage beyond that. With entertainment schedules sagging in a fractured media environment, broadcast executives might have little to lose by adding another hour in primetime.

Lester Holt will anchor NBC’s Nightly News from the conventions; Face the Nation’s John Dickerson will be among the CBS News anchors leading coverage, and there are already plans to ditch the hermetically sealed skybox and station reporters and anchors on the convention floor. And with Trump supporters clashing with protestors on the primary trail, there is also the question of what could happen outside the convention halls. So the networks could actually have a news event on their hands.

"I think the people we’ll send are going to have more to do than they did in recent times," notes CBS News president David Rhodes.

The reality of a Trump-headlined GOP convention also is putting pressure on the Democrats and likely nominee Hillary Clinton to get the same level of attention as the Republicans. Usually hesitant to publicly align themselves too closely with Hollywood for fear of being labeled limousine liberals, Democrats could actually lean on supporters there to buoy their convention, which begins July 25 in Philadelphia.

“This presents an interesting challenge for the Democrats,” adds Todd. “Trump could do something over the top; there’s certainly risk in being too showy. But the Democrats don’t want their convention to look boring. They don’t want people to tune it out.”

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