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Cover Story

TV's New Campaign Trail

January 26, 1992|SHARON BERNSTEIN | Sharon Bernstein is a regular contributor to Calendar and TV Times

According to Wheatley, the decision reflects the decreasing importance of the party conventions as vehicles for deciding who will be chosen to lead the Democratic or Republican ticket. While those decisions were previously made at conventions, Wheatley said, now they are made during the primary process. If candidates with a clear majority of votes are not chosen at this year's primaries, he said, NBC will probably change its plans, and carry more of the conventions.

The move will also enable the network to bring in additional revenue by showing entertainment programming during the first hours of the conventions each night, Wheatley said.

"On the NBC network, there will probably be fewer total hours, unless we end up with a closely contested convention," Wheatley said.

Ever-present and hoping to be seen as an alternative to the mainstream coverage is C-Span. The not-for-profit cable channel that covers politics will not only carry the conventions, but will travel with candidates, airing their speeches verbatim and conducting impromptu interviews throughout the campaign.

Altogether, C-Span plans to air about 1,000 hours of campaign coverage, according to Susan Swain, C-Span senior vice president. And C-Span plans to cover lesser-known candidates as well as the more prominent Democrats and Republicans.

"The goal is, rather than to be covering the news of the campaign, to give people who watch a better in-depth feel for the issues," Swain said.

At PBS, where producers are smarting from sluggish private donations and corporate funding, most of the coverage of the campaign will be contained within existing news and public affairs programs, such as "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" and "Frontline," said Arnold Labaton, executive director of PBS election coverage.

"Frontline" is planning a mini-series tentatively titled "The State of Democracy," with author William Greider, Labaton said. And the program will probably produce profiles of the final Democratic and Republican candidates.

In addition, a new series with journalist Bill Moyers, titled "Listening to America" and slated to premiere April 7, will treat some election-year issues.

But Labaton said that some of public television's planned coverage is jeopardized by the slow economy. Even PBS' highly publicized plans to cover the conventions in cooperation with NBC are in danger of collapsing because of lack of money, he said. In order to continue as planned, he said, PBS must raise between $500,000 and $1 million.

From PBS to the commercial networks, news providers insist that despite their economic woes, they plan to do a better job in '92 than in '88.

Still sensitive about the effectiveness of dirty campaign ads in 1988 and 1990, all five news organizations say they will focus attention to political commercials. Candidates who make false or exaggerated charges, the networks promise, will be called on the carpet for it.

And the broadcast networks in particular say they are abandoning the old practice of covering every stump speech and photo opportunity given by candidates.

"We've always felt a compulsion to make sure every candidate gets equal time, but when you get a campaign that doesn't do anything other than stunts, maybe they don't deserve equal time," said Bruno of ABC. "A newspaper doesn't print every press release it gets, so why should we broadcast every stunt the campaigns dream up?"

And the networks have big plans for changing the way campaign debates are conducted. The four commercial networks and PBS got together last year and came up with a new format they feel will cut down on the tendency of Presidential debates to degenerate into sound-bite shouting matches.

Under their proposal--which has not yet been accepted by either major party--candidates would no longer be questioned by a panel of journalists in front of an often highly partisan studio audience.

Instead, the Democratic and Republican candidates and a single moderator would meet in a closed studio, and the moderator would lead a discussion between the two on a single topic. There would be three presidential debates, one on foreign policy, one on domestic policy and one that would be open-ended. A single debate would be held with the vice presidential candidates.

But changing the way campaigns are brought into the average living room promises to be an uphill battle. Experts predict candidates will oppose the new debate format because it's more difficult for them to manipulate. And despite the networks' avowed plans to avoid publicity stunts and sound bites, the fact is that out on the campaign trail, when a candidate says something quotable that the competition might use, those intentions might be forgotten.

"At this time in the campaign year, there are usually people like me telling (media writers) how we're going to do it different next time," said CNN's Hannon. "And at the end of the campaign there are seminars where we sit around talking about what went wrong."

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