GOP, networks focus on hurricane

But there are signs things will be back to normal Tuesday

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- "It's like showing up at a party and realizing you're at the wrong place" is how CBS News Washington bureau chief Christopher Isham described the Republican National Convention on its initial day. The GOP in fact truncated opening day Monday and assumed a somber tone as a result of Hurricane Gustav.

Speeches and politicking were dropped, with only a two-hour, business-like event in its place. Parties and other non-convention events went on as scheduled, but with an eye to raising funds -- not for the GOP but for disaster relief.

Much of the networks' attention was placed on the hurricane story, with only periodic updates from the RNC.

"It's part of the news business," Isham added.

As things progressed Monday, however, there were signs that things would begin to return to normal Tuesday.

It appeared likely that instead of canceling outright or making wholesale changes to the RNC's remaining three days, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will accept the VP nom as scheduled Wednesday night and Sen. John McCain will deliver his presidential acceptance speech Thursday night, both in primetime.

While the GOP got some airtime Sunday and Monday, it wasn't the kind of play that it had planned for. The Big Three network anchors had abandoned St. Paul to travel to the Gulf Coast, and both the broadcast networks and cablers were focussed almost entirely on hurricane coverage.

"It's different from what we expected but the hurricane is the biggest news," said ABC News senior vp Kate O'Brian. "The RNC, the McCain campaign and we agree that it is the pressing news of the moment and Charlie (Gibson) is where he should be."

The networks were already making plans to return their big anchors for Wednesday and Thursday. NBC was planning to make that decision tonight, after the "NBC Nightly News." Reached by telephone from New Orleans where he was covering the storm, anchor Brian Williams said the decision would be made shortly.

"We don't know yet," Williams said. "But we're ready." Gibson and CBS's Katie Couric will probably return to St. Paul as well Tuesday or Wednesday.

News execs were waiting for word expected by the end of Monday or early Tuesday about the rest of the schedule. That's when the networks would decide about what kind of coverage to give going forward. Monday's primetime coverage was a mix of hurricane and RNC stories, with a heavy emphasis on the storm.

"It seems to me we'll resume convention coverage tomorrow and probably have much more, unless there's more devastation," said CNN political director Sam Feist. "It depends on what the convention does but our plan is to move into more coverage."

Here in St. Paul, the GOP has put out word to nonconvention events and fund-raisers to be respectful and do what they can to help hurricane victims. Already that has had an impact.

The Lifetime/Rock the Vote late-night party would go on as scheduled Monday night but organizers said that it would become a benefit for the American Red Cross Hurricane Relief Fund.

The Creative Coalition, which held star-studded events in Denver and planned the same here, continued with their plans but with an eye to the issues in and around Louisiana.

"We are citizens first and our thoughts and prayers are with the millions of our fellow Americans in the Gulf Coast region who are preparing for the impact of Hurricane Gustav," said executive director Robin Bronk.

Despite the scale-back, Hollywood was still in attendance at the RNC: Filmmaker David Zucker screened his anti-left wing movie "An American Carol" on Sunday night, an event that was well attended. Other celebrities attending events include Tim Daly, Barry Levinson, Richard Schiff, Wendie Malick and Tom Fontana.

Networks were also beginning to have the "what-if" discussions to decide what they would do once the convention resumed. Hanging in the air were questions of fairness. The Democrats had four hours of primetime broadcast time last week and on the cable networks, three hours of primetime each night for four nights plus other coverage.

Would the networks somehow try to give the GOP time at the end of the week, perhaps televising two hours on Thursday night instead of the one previously planned?

That and other scenarios were being discussed at the highest levels of the news divisions and the broadcast networks, which would have to approve the change. There was no formal request for additional coverage from the McCain campaign.

While "The Daily Show" had an unfettered ability to poke fun at the Democrats in Denver, the Comedy Central show's "fake news" had a reality check with all that was (and wasn't) going on at the RNC.

Comedy Central spokesman Steve Albani said Monday afternoon that the show was still a go for Tuesday through Friday, although it was likely that the content would be impacted.

"They'll do the best that they can under the circumstances of an unusual and unique Republican National Convention," Albani said.