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Politicos Fume as Networks Cut Convention Coverage (Analysis)

ABC CBS NBC Logo Split - P 2012

ABC, NBC and CBS will air just an hour per night of primetime coverage from the DNC and RNC, raising questions about their commitment to serving the public interest.

Both political parties are fuming over the Big Three networks’ plans to give the national political conventions grudgingly minimal coverage in primetime, a decision critics say shortchanges the public and violates the broadcasters' requirement to operate "in the public interest."

The troubles started when CBS, NBC and ABC disclosed this month that they will give just one hour a night of their most desirable airtime to each of the conventions; in 2008, they aired that hour, plus special segments on parties and profiles. That decision has fueled a simmering but serious debate over whether the broadcast giants have abandoned any pretense of operating in the common good, as they’re legally required to do.

American broadcast frequencies belong to the taxpayers. The federal government essentially rents those frequencies out when they grant an individual station a license. Each of those grants includes a requirement that the station allocate some time to public service. Broadcasting the news traditionally has been the primary way licensees fulfill that obligation.

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Even before Tropical Storm Isaac forced the GOP to cancel Monday’s opening night of its convention in Tampa, Fla., the Big Three had decided not to cover the proceedings. Instead, they plan to air a total of three hours live in primetime, spread out over three successive nights. (Some Republican officials took particular offense at the prospect of the networks skipping Anne Romney’s address to the delegates in favor of summer reruns.) All three of the free broadcast networks plan similar coverage of next week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Moreover, while the Republicans have the weather to contend with, the Dems have been forced to share their convention nights with such competing distractions as the NFL’s regular-season kickoff game and the MTV Video Music Awards.

The question raised by the Big Three’s plans to do such unprecedentedly minimal coverage of this year’s national political conventions is whether the free broadcast networks have gone too far in putting ratings ahead of the public interest.

Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that the Democrats quietly are fuming over their negotiations with the networks concerning coverage, but the controversy broke into the open late Friday, when Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus made his displeasure public in a particularly pointed series of comments to CNN, even suggesting that the networks’ decisions reflected an anti-GOP bias with which the party has had to deal throughout this election cycle.

"I am pretty disappointed with the networks for not covering us on Monday, but we are getting good at dealing with the mainstream media," he said. "I think the media has an obsession with distractions. They
 haven’t been focused on the economy, jobs and the promises that Obama has failed to deliver, [but] we are getting used to getting our message out in spite of the mainstream media."


Beyond the always slippery question of bias, the Republicans appear to have every right to criticize the networks because their ability to profit from the exclusive use of broadcast channels that, in fact, belong to the people of the United States still is legally conditioned on their willingness to operate in the public interest. Every individual television station’s license is granted by the FCC and contains just that stipulation. Long before they became engines of profit on their own, the networks launched their news divisions specifically to meet the public-interest requirement. News, however, no longer pulls down the ratings it once did, and the networks -- now divisions of larger entertainment conglomerates -- are treating this year’s national political conventions more or less like a tacky reality show.

If there’s anything on which most people would agree that the public has a clearly defined interest in, it’s a political convention that nominates candidates for president and vice president. Biased or not, it would seem that CBS, NBC and ABC have turned their backs on what appears to be a clear obligation to the public good.

Things, however, are seldom that straightforward -- at least not in the tumultuous world of news and media -- and the Big Three might have a right to plead extenuating circumstance before they’re convicted in the court of public opinion.

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These days, political conventions simply aren’t the dramatic events of consequence they once were. There was a time not long ago -- like the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles -- when the delegates selected candidates for president and vice president without anyone knowing the outcome beforehand. The nearly universal adoption of state primaries and caucuses has eliminated that drama.

Today’s conventions simply give formal ratification to a decision that’s already made. Nowadays, presidential candidates don’t even wait for the convention to announce their running mate. Even the floor fights over platform planks that used to break out have been all but eliminated.

Contemporary national conventions actually amount to little more than a four-day infomercial for the candidates and their party. That’s why the casting process for podium speakers is almost as calculated as the one that goes into selecting a feature film’s cast.

The Democrats have put attractive celebrities like Eva Longoria on their convention podium and recalled their reigning cheerleader-in-chief -- President Bill Clinton -- to address the delegates on the night pro football begins its season. But with no real news in prospect, the networks at least are entitled to wonder what kind of audience four nights of multi-hour, primetime coverage would attract.

Actually, minimal coverage of its convention this week might not be all that bad for the RNC. If there’s anything the networks still love to cover, it’s an extreme weather event. As Isaac churns up the Gulf, it’s likely to strengthen into at least a Category 1 hurricane before it plows into the coast in Mississippi, Alabama -- or Louisiana. It was seven years this week that Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Bush administration’s lackluster response created its biggest domestic failure.

If any convention planner had a nightmare, it would be split-screen coverage of the podium and the storm, while the talking heads dragged up those painful old memories from 2005. In media, as in life, you need to be careful what you wish for.