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Frustrated Networks See an End to Hours of 'Live' TV Coverage

Media: They deplore stage-managed GOP convention. Others say tight scheduling robs event of any drama.


SAN DIEGO — The Republican convention this year has been so rigorously stage-managed that some television network executives are predicting it may be the last time they commit to hours of "live" coverage in advance.

Two pieces of evidence of how carefully stage-managed the convention has been: AIDS activist Mary Fisher's moving plea was scheduled to end just before the start of the Republican's own broadcast on Pat Robertson's Family Channel; and House Speaker Newt Gingrich--popular among Republicans but not among voters at large--was done speaking before the start of network broadcasts at 7 p.m.

One possible result of the lack of surprise at the convention is that viewership has taken a nose dive in the last two evenings--a painful blow for news operations that have spent millions on convention coverage. Network insiders predict that by the year 2000 the news business would commit far fewer people and much less air time to cover these political extravaganzas.

"If the same general format continues in the year 2000, I think the nets will be there only for the acceptance speeches on Thursday night," NBC's executive producer Jeff Zucker said.

Zucker's public prediction, echoed mostly in private by those at other networks, may stem in part from the possibility that the networks have been outmaneuvered this year by Republican National Committee strategists.

"There is an irony here that these conventions become so well-suited for television that they don't get on the networks anymore," said Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News.

Heyward said that after this political season, there would be "a reassessment of resources and time, but it's not a foregone conclusion."

For many in the media, the tightly managed schedule in San Diego has sapped much of the natural drama of having about 2,000 delegates gathering under one roof for four days. Ted Koppel of ABC's "Nightline" decided to leave Tuesday night because "this convention is more of an infomercial than a news event. Nothing surprising has happened. Nothing surprising is anticipated."

The departure became an instant subject of debate among journalists, some of whom called it shortsighted, considering that these conventions are still part of the process of electing a president of the United States. "It's arrogant," said Robert Novak, conservative political columnist.

But the television audience seems to be taking the same path. Network ratings after Monday night were down 20% from the Republican convention four years ago, even lower on Tuesday night. The Family Channel's numbers were also down by one-third from its usual audience over the last two nights, meaning the telecast was going to only about 355,000 people a night.

The give-and-take between the media and the GOP has been a constant subject of debate this week as the Republicans try to send a message and the journalists try to do their jobs.

"I don't think ultimately anybody will benefit from this--the media or the party," said Peter Jennings, ABC News anchor. "I think the Republicans will not benefit . . . because this managed convention, I think, contributes to the suspicion people have that the party is just trying to use them.

"We, on the other hand, are in danger of coming to this with a negative attitude . . . of contributing to the negativity in politics today," he said.

If the plug is pulled eventually by the networks, which still have the biggest block of viewers during prime time, CNN, C-SPAN and some of the newer cable outlets are ready to move quickly into any void.

"If the other networks cut back, we will most likely push ahead," CNN President Tom Johnson said.

Still, Johnson, who was an aide to President Johnson for the 1968 convention, said that the 1996 GOP conclave "is the most controlled convention of my career. The party has been able to control their message; they have been able to control their audience; they have been able to control the media."

For most Republicans, this is high praise.

"It is our responsibility to put on a convention in the best way we can to tell the American people about the Republican Party," said Mary Crawford, press secretary for the Republican National Committee. "It isn't our responsibility to plan network coverage. It is not appropriate for us to plan their coverage. It's the networks' decision, their responsibility."

Perhaps the most vigorous contest between the RNC and the media has focused on the hours when the networks have agreed to cover the convention live. Numerous network officials complained this week that key speeches were scheduled so that they finished just as the networks' scheduled time ended--a tactic that seemed designed to limit commentary from the media.

But the networks have won some as well. When NBC News announced that it would not go on the air until after "Seinfeld" aired in the East tonight, the GOP shifted the schedule so that NBC could air Jack Kemp's acceptance speech live.

And while GOP strategists may have hoped to keep Gingrich off network airtime by placing his speech earlier in the evening on Tuesday, CBS began its convention program that night with an interview of Gingrich, instead of using the Republican offerings from the podium.

Republican delegates have been asked to participate in the script. Most of them have received detailed instructions about how to look, when to cheer and even how to deal with journalists trolling the convention floor in search of news.

Sam Donaldson, in an impromptu floor interview Tuesday night, asked one delegate wearing antiabortion pins what she thought about the moderate views being proclaimed from the podium. "Great," she said, beaming into the camera.

Donaldson turned to Jennings in the anchor booth and said: "If I had a real story, I'd let you know."

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