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Networks Wary Of Convention Coverage

When Barack Obama made his first major appearance on the national stage in 2004, giving easily the most memorable speech of the Democratic National Convention, the traditional Big Three networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—had all returned to their regularly scheduled programming.

Gone are the days when the broadcast networks' extensive coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions was the only game in town, competing on late summer nights with a handful of television re-runs. As network viewership has declined and the political junkies have fled to cable, prime-time network coverage of the convention has dwindled.

Indeed, the Big Three each devoted just one hour in prime-time during three of four convention nights in 2004, with no live programming of that now memorable Tuesday night when Obama arrived on stage at Boston’s Fleet Center. Coincidentally, John McCain also spoke at Madison Square Garden before the networks were broadcasting live (Rudy Giuliani, though, got a coveted televised spot at the podium).

But now Barack and Mac are back, and will definitely be making the prime-time cut this election cycle, which, to the delight of news executives, has brought in millions of eager viewers during numerous debates and primary election nights.

Now that Tuesday night delegate counting is done, the Big Three networks can look toward programming this summer’s conventions, and the unique logistical issues created by having just three days between them. But although the public has followed the 2008 race in numbers unmatched in recent elections, the networks still might not up the ante this time around.

Phil Alongi, NBC’s executive producer for political coverage and special events, said that while the network has penciled in a similar programming schedule to 2004, he’s “always looking for a reason to get more air time.”

If the political parties were smart when putting together the schedule of speakers, Alongi said, “they’d come up with a hook to give us a reason to be on for longer than [during] the past few political cycles.”

It’s in part the over-scripted nature of recent conventions, where the nominees are known beforehand, that’s led to diminished interest. Where once conventions were where nominees were decided in backroom deals, now they’re wear those already chosen are publicly coronated. And at this point, there’s little chance of a floor fight in Denver.

Even with the Democratic convention first up, kicking off on August 25, there’s still time to put together a more network-friendly schedule. In 2004, for example, Obama wasn’t announced as keynote speaker until about 10 days before his speech, and the final line-up wasn’t locked down until 4 days before the convention, according to a DNC spokesperson.

Despite only devoting an hour per night in prime-time on NBC, Alongi said he has to coordinate programming from 4 am to midnight, local time, beginning with “Morning Joe” on MSNBC and going on through the post-convention wrap-up—and, also coordinating to some with CNBC and Telemundo. With a sister cable network, MSNBC has been viewed by some as having a distinct advantage in offering comprehensive coverage with top on-air personalities jumping from one platform to the other, and a news operation running before and after the 10 pm to 11 pm hour when “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams takes the helm on NBC.

But not everyone sees it that way.

“We don’t have the burdens of having to feed the 24-hour cable channel,” said ABC News Vice President Bob Murphy, adding that the network can focus on other platforms, like the web. And it should be noted that ABC and the other networks will all provide gavel-to-gavel coverage online, if not on the air, as they did in 2004.

“There’s a steady migration from a very static broadcast model to a more dnamic multi-platform model of coverage,” Murphy said.

While the new media world’s come a long way, the major networks still require more than a handful of bloggers on Macs to make the trains run. All three will be broadcasting in high-def for the first time, and that requires plenty of equipment, and plenty of staffers working on both sides of the camera.

In addition to having Katie Couric anchor the evening newscast on location—as will Williams and Charles Gibson—CBS will air “Face the Nation” on location, too.

In two weeks, CBS staffers will complete their next walk-through of the Denver site, checking out location for other programming, including “The Early Show,” which at this point is “likely” to broadcast from the convention, according to a CBS spokesperson.

But after Obama accepts the nomination on Thursday evening, the CBS caravan of “approximately four full-size trucks with equipment,” according to a spokesperson, embarks on the 14-16 hour drive to the Twin Cities.

For NBC, there’s a “triple challenge,” according to Alongi, with staffers spread out between Beijing, Denver, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Although Alongi will be in China for NBC’s Olympics coverage—which closes on the eve off the Democratic convention—he expects to head back to the states early to coordinate the conventions. Alongi’s not the only one: about 50 of the roughly 200 NBC staffers working the conventions will also be at the Olympics. That includes the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira, who are likely to split the conventions.

With so many moving parts split between two continents, Alongi said that NBC would employ three different setups, with no transporting of essential equipment between them.

For ABC, Murphy said there are two senior producers coordinating coverage in each of the two cities. While only having a three-day respite can be problematic this cycle, Murphy said that the network’s known the schedule for long enough to plan accordingly.

“It certainly does present some unique challenges,” Murphy said. “We’ve known they would be three days apart for some time. It’s not like a breaking news story where you have little time to organize and plan, and dispatch people and equipment.”

Murphy said that that while there’s less ABC personnel and equipment needed than at previous conventions, it’s still a sizeable commitment.

And is it worth the investment on prime-time for the networks, considering that ratings have dropped in recent cycles, and that this year’s conventions are sandwiched around the Labor Day weekend, long a dead zone for ratings?

“If we covered conventions for ratings, we would have gotten out of the business a long time ago,” Murphy said.

“We feel like the contribution we’re making is to the public service,” he added, “engaging the public in its rightful democratic process.”

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