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THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION

After Philly, CBS Will Adjust Coverage Plan for L.A.

August 03, 2000|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — CBS News officials said Wednesday they will change how the network covers the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles after its jarring mishmash of Republican convention and non-convention coverage Monday and Tuesday nights drew harsh reviews and set off heated internal debates.

Anchor Dan Rather and several correspondents and producers were unhappy about Monday's broadcast, which jumped back and forth from convention coverage to rerun newsmagazine pieces about medical issues. CBS skipped a convention speech by Texas first lady Laura Bush and part of the keynote address by retired Gen. Colin L. Powell. On Tuesday, CBS also jumped back and forth but carried most of Sen. John McCain's speech.

"One doesn't make news judgments in hindsight," said Rather, interviewed in his work trailer outside the convention hall. "I wish we had put Laura Bush on. I didn't design the program." CBS, he added, "had a concept. It didn't work all that well Monday night," and it was "bound to strike some viewers as neither fish nor fowl."

Mixing convention news and newsmagazine reruns was the idea of CBS News President Andrew Heyward, despite disagreement from some CBS News producers. Heyward said he wanted to "be in a position to do convention coverage without devoting the whole hour" to the event, which he and others, including Rather, have argued is highly staged.

"This is not Cuba," Heyward said, where all TV outlets are compelled to cover official proceedings. "Our information marketplace is built on choice." The conventions, he said, have little news and "people aren't interested in it."

Still, Heyward said, "the actual viewer experience Monday could have been better." Changes CBS made Tuesday to accommodate McCain, he said, meant CBS gave up "several hundred thousand dollars" in ads.

In Los Angeles, he said, CBS will instead mix convention coverage with convention-related stories. But he noted that, "ironically, they will get lower ratings." Indeed, on Monday and Tuesday, CBS drew more viewers to its mix than ABC did to its straight convention coverage. Even more strikingly, CBS and NBC saw their ratings drop Tuesday night when they switched to McCain's speech.

Despite his feelings about the Monday broadcast, Rather said, "I don't feel that we need to apologize for declining to be handmaidens of a political party." And in a veiled jab at NBC News, which moved most of its early convention coverage to cable network MSNBC, he said, "We are on the air in prime time. Maybe not as well as we should be, but it's hard to please everybody.

"And it's in the overall context that one of our major competitors had no coverage on Monday night. Zero, zip, nada, nothing."

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