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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

As GOP Meets, Another Study in Convention

August 12, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The story here in San Diego is the fever pitch of construction.

--CNN anchor Donna Kelly, overlooking the unfinished podium inside the Republican convention hall Friday

*

Today's start of the televised Republican National Coronation of Bob Dole is a signal for nostalgia-niks to chew on the past.

Oh for the good old days, when a GOP or Democratic nominating convention was a show you could count on, a real rumble of action and insults, several days and nights of suspenseful infighting and intrigue over naming the party standard-bearer.

Actually, there's been no really exciting nominating convention for ages. Let's see, what was that guy's name, Grover Cleveland?

Just kidding. But it is true that no convention since 1952 has gone past the first ballot. Not for decades, in fact, has there been a truly definitive convention, one whose top nominee was not taken for granted in advance, one whose undecided delegates mattered significantly, one whose television interviews had relevance beyond filling time and justifying the coverage.

Good people disagree about whether the present system of having state primaries and caucuses cumulatively pick major party presidential nominees is better or worse than the combustible conventions, where choices for the big job were dictated by wheeling, dealing party leaders. But from an entertainment perspective, the verdict is in.

As TV shows, today's conventions are flat-out clunkers, little more than tailored-for-TV infomercials in which processions of posturing professor Harold Hills sound partisan oom-pahs on behalf of their party and its presidential nominee, who was a lock going in.

Barring something unforeseen, that will be the case for this week's Republican convention and also for the Aug. 26-29 Democratic affair in Chicago that will go through the motions of renominating the Clinton-Gore ticket. Ready the balloons.

No longer do all major commercial networks lavish costly gavel-to-gavel live coverage on these political infomercials, though. Nor should they, given that nothing is written in stone about the media being responsible for giving presidential candidates "bounce" in the polls via days of free exposure as they near the election.

Nonetheless, with NBC, PBS, CNN and the Family Channel scheduling large chunks of live coverage in addition to the traditional gavel-to-gavel presence of C-SPAN, the Republicans are still getting vastly more blanket TV attention than they deserve, instead of having their speeches and other endeavors covered individually and only when warranted. And the Democrats will surely receive the same gift, minus the Family Channel.

Just how the Family Channel fits into this week is something to watch, given its control by televangelist Pat Robertson--whose "700 Club" program selectively depicted the 1992 Republican convention with a doctrinaire twist--and the docket of the party politicians who will staff this GOP-paid, GOP-friendly coverage (no wonder they're calling it GOP-TV) as if they were actual reporters.

But what's to report anyway, despite NBC promos touting its own joint coverage with PBS? Tom Brokaw: "Beyond the speakers, beyond the rhetoric, beyond the platform." Yes, the great "beyond," code for babble.

One of the TV highlights of the 1992 GOP convention was the first lady disclosing in prime time--on six channels simultaneously--that what made George Bush proudest in their many years of marriage and public service was that "his children still come home." The coverage was still live when one of their grandsons revealed that the president was "the greatest man I've ever known." And still live when Barbara Bush was joined on the podium by the rest of her dozen grandchildren and their parents and finally by George himself in a hugfest for the ages.

At some point, those guiding this week's regular live coverage will probably feel guilty about over-covering one party, but instead of cutting out, they will cut into something equally un-newsworthy staged by Democrats, as they did during the 1992 GOP convention, when showing the Clintons and Gores hammering nails alongside former President Jimmy Carter at a home being built for an indigent family in Atlanta.

Should the carpenters not appear this time, here are some other things to look for:

* Pundits and reporters telling you whether the podium speeches you just heard and watched--especially Tuesday's keynote address by New York Rep. Susan Molinari and Thursday's acceptances by expected GOP nominee Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp--were electrifying or dull. Being a mere mortal, you will be unable to determine this for yourself and, thus, will be highly appreciative of this assistance from Greater Minds.

* The same self-anointed gurus disclosing the hidden true motives of the speakers. Again, encumbered by mortality, you will be unable to see inside the brains of speakers and will be in a terrible fog until enlightened by members of the media who have this gift.

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