During the time that Bill Clinton was rocking the Democratic convention, ABC, CBS, and Fox were showing re-runs, NBC was showing the second hour of “America’s Got Talent,” and the CW was showing the second season finale of “Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious.”
Less than two decades ago, the networks gave the conventions gavel-to-gavel coverage. This year, the networks are giving only four hours prime time coverage to each convention.
The first televised conventions were in Philadelphia in 1948. At the time, only about 170,000 of the nation’s 42.2 million households had televisions. The networks, desperate to fill their government-issued airwaves, begged the nation to believe that television was at the cutting edge of the future. TV needed politicians; politicians weren’t so sure they needed TV. By 1960, more than 46 million of the nation’s 58 million households had at least one TV set, and most stations were broadcasting at least 16 hours a day. If anyone doubted the potential and power of television, it was quashed that year during the televised Nixon–Kennedy debates which gave the Massachusetts senator a lead he never lost. Eight years later, the cameras recorded the Chicago riots, giving credibility to the antiwar movement and virtually destroying the Democrats’ chance to defeat Richard Nixon, even though the liberal Hubert Humphrey deplored the police response and Mayor Richard Daley’s iron fist tactics.
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Once, the parties’ nominees for president were usually determined at the convention itself, not months earlier in the media-enhanced primary campaigns. On the floor of the convention, we at home, watching on 17-inch TV sets, looked forward to the roll call, as each state’s chairman stood up, usually dressed in something red-white-and outrageous, and declared for all America to hear, something to the effect: “Mr. Chairman, the great and glorious state of Globule Gulch, home of more than 50 hotdog stands per square mile and the most beautiful women on earth, the place where George Washington once slept and where cows peacefully graze on our healthy grass, proudly casts it 85 votes for its favorite son, Governor Lushpuppy Billings.”
By the late 1980s, TV demanded more and more, and the party leaders began to stage prime time shows to play to TV’s prime–time necessities.
Gone are the spontaneous floor events where delegates march, laugh, maybe argue with each other, and actually participate in helping shape the direction of their party, even when the nominee was an incumbent president. Does anyone hear about the party’s platform and its planks now? Does anyone even care? The signs on the convention floor are cookie-cutter conformity. The delegates are nothing more than props. Their role is to go to the myriad lobbyist-prepared parties, have fun, and act as extras for the show unfolding before them, and then go home and rally the grassroots support.
Last week, Barack Obama and his campaign staff controlled every aspect of the convention, including who would be the speakers, what and how they would say it, when each would appear and for how long. Only President Clinton’s speech wasn’t vetted. It won’t be any different this week with the Republicans, but the Republicans may have to check President Bush’s speech ahead of time, ’lest it become more comedic than planned.
It was the television media that created the atmosphere that demanded “interesting visuals” and the seven-second sound bite; and now the media are upset that politicians, in their infomercial packaged conventions that play to the camera, have nothing to say. The networks, which created the monster, are crying there isn’t any news—and they cut away from what is interesting, such as the speech by President Clinton—and turn the cameras onto themselves. The pontificating pundits with their semi-erudite commentaries and all-knowing blather that bores viewers more than any politician’s 20-minute speech, now dominate the prime time coverage and pretend what they’re saying actually matters. It’s hard to believe that 16,000 members of the media credentialed to cover each convention couldn’t find any news.
But, there is news. There are stories. The networks, sitting on their plush assets, have failed to dig out these stories to better help Americans understand the issues that affect them. And so the celebrity-driven media spent more time percolating the story of the division between the Hillary and Obama forces than trying to help Americans better understand the issues. If the mainstream media were to leave their color-coordinated broadcast booths and hospitality suites, as the alternative media have done, and dig beneath the puffery and pageantry, they may find the greater social and political issues that need to be reported, as well as the delightful “slice of life” stories that help us better understand our own lives.
The first TV conventions were the best of the emerging Reality TV programming before the medium sunk into who would eat what disgusting insect. America needs both the conventions and the media to be more real.
(November 2007), available through amazon.com and other bookstores. You may contact Brasch at
[Walter Brasch’s latest book is the second edition of Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bushbrasch@bloomu.edu or through his website at: www.walterbrasch.com]
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