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Bad Planning or Ploy? Some Question Democrats' TV Air Time


Was it deliberate--or not?

Broadcast network executives debated Tuesday whether the Democrats' Monday night schedule fell behind because of poor planning or a strategic ploy to get more air time for its speakers. Either way, the networks, which have been under fire for collectively cutting back on their convention coverage this year, ended up with little choice but to devote far more time than they had planned to the opening night, which ended with speeches by President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Some viewers sensed conspiracy: CBS said its affiliate stations received complaints that the Democrats got more time than the Republicans. Republican Party Chairman Jim Nicholson, who had demanded last week that the networks devote "not a minute more" to the Democrats, expressed outrage Tuesday.

"I think it's unfair," he said. TV coverage of the conventions "does affect how [people] vote. It's not always news, but it is information. I'm disappointed."

Network executives had been expecting that the night would go long, "given that the president has been known to go longer than the appointed time before," noted CBS News President Andrew Heyward. Still, at 10:30 p.m. in the East, when all three broadcasters had expected President Clinton, they instead got Mrs. Clinton, who thus received prime-time coverage in New York, where she is a candidate for the Senate. Had it started as scheduled, her speech would have received partial or no coverage on CBS and NBC; instead, most of her speech was carried live.

Inside the networks, executives debated whether they had been tricked. As Heyward assessed it: "They do what they do, and we do what we do. I do feel that, inadvertently or deliberately, we were manipulated, and it certainly turned out to be a favorable night for the Democrats. But I would also say the president's speech was newsworthy and strong, and I'm certainly glad we covered it."

In fact, saying the night was newsworthy, the networks defended their decision to carry the president's entire speech. It ran to 11:40 p.m. in the East, 40 minutes after the networks had planned to be off the air to accommodate East Coast affiliates' local newscasts. In the tug of war between networks and the political parties, East Coast times--prime time for much of the country--remain paramount.

Democratic Party spokeswoman Jenny Backus attributed the time delay to "opening night jitters" that caused several speakers to run over their allotted times. "We've got great speeches and a crowd on the floor that really wanted to show their thanks," she said.

Convention aides said they tried to play catch-up, limiting the applause time given speakers and rushing out the next speaker. But with a host of senators, the first lady and the famously long-winded president all speaking, the night backed up.

Late Mention of Gore

Democratic officials noted that it was in the best interest of presumptive nominee Vice President Al Gore to have the program run on time: The time delay in Clinton's speech meant there was only a glancing reference to Gore before the speech slid out of East Coast prime time. "There is absolutely no truth to any conspiracy rumor floating out there," said Backus.

The numbers, as tallied by CSPAN, told the story: One hour and 10 minutes on ABC for podium coverage of the Democrats compared with 36 minutes for the Republicans; on CBS, and hour and three minutes for the Democrats, 22 minutes for the Republicans. NBC gave the Democrats 59 minutes, compared with none for the Republicans. (On Tuesday, CBS and ABC aired a few more minutes of the Democrats than they did of the Republicans' second night; NBC didn't show any of the Democrats, compared with 16 minutes of the Republicans' second night.)

Network executives were divided on whether they had been manipulated. While acknowledging internal debate, Bill Wheatley, executive vice president of NBC News, said: "We don't know it was deliberate, and we have no evidence it was deliberate.

"These things happen. . . . You can't cover news with a stopwatch."

Still, Heyward said the delays left CBS in a bind regarding Mrs. Clinton's speech. "I don't think we had much of a choice, given the way things shook down. It would have been perverse of us to talk among ourselves and refuse to carry Mrs. Clinton."

Marc Burstein, executive producer of special events for ABC News, dismissed the debate: "It's all about editorial judgment, and we made the judgment and did stay with the president based on the news value of what he was saying and the fact that he has been president for eight years."


Times staff writer Jeff Leeds contributed to this story.

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