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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

On Cable, Conventions Are Smackdown Event

Network coverage may be shrinking, but outlets like WWE and MTV will try to grab viewers.

July 18, 2004|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Who needs Rather, Jennings and Brokaw? Chris Nowinski, political correspondent for World Wrestling Entertainment, will be prowling the floor of the Democratic National Convention next week for the cable television show, "Monday Night Raw."

For this assignment, the 25-year-old wrestler will wear a sport coat and slacks instead of his usual TV attire -- skin-tight briefs. His story angle, too, is based more on brains than brawn.

"What are they going to do to reach out to young voters in the fall?" Nowinski said he would ask Democrats. "We want to get more young people to vote."

This year as never before, the national political conventions will connect with Americans through cable TV.

Some conduits are established news outlets, such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Others are known for their focus on pop music, sports, comedy -- and even pro wrestling. All are helping fill the void left by shrinking broadcast network coverage of the gatherings that Republicans and Democrats stage every four years to nominate candidates for president and vice president.

Just three of the 28 hours of the Democratic convention in Boston from July 26 through July 29 will be broadcast live on the CBS, ABC and NBC networks, with the coverage anchored by Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, respectively. That includes a mere one hour on the night Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts accepts his party's presidential nomination. The same slim schedule is planned when the Republicans meet in New York Aug. 30 through Sept. 2 to renominate President Bush.

The days of gavel-to-gavel network coverage are long in the past. And the sagging TV ratings for the 1996 and 2000 confabs led them to further reduce their live broadcasts this year.

"It's their decision, and there's not much more we can do about it," a Republican Party official said on condition of anonymity. "But there's so much cable now that I don't know that network coverage is as essential as it once was."

Indeed, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel will have many hours of live coverage and commentary every day from the conventions. C-Span will have its cameras trained on the podiums for every minute of the proceedings. And cable channels that target minorities, such as BET, will be there in force.

More off-beat reports will come from the ranks of ESPN, Comedy Central and MTV. And then there's World Wrestling Entertainment, which produces shows for various cable channels. ("Monday Night Raw" airs on Spike TV.)

"The conventions are being off-loaded to cable," said Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center. For the big networks, he said, political conventions are "not a huge draw. Cable then takes over."

Peggy C. Wilhide, communications director for the Democratic National Convention, said, "We are getting coverage like we've never gotten before from these different cable outlets. It's a changing environment in terms of how people get their news and information. We're just adapting."

The emerging political importance of cable TV is reflected in this year's campaign advertising. Bush and Kerry have spent millions of dollars to reach voters through cable channels, a first for major party candidates.

Studies show that many Americans are migrating to cable. The Pew center reported in June that 38% of Americans get their news regularly from cable, compared to 34% who regularly watch the nightly news on the three largest networks.

To some degree, that finding reflects cable's specialized format. People can catch a snippet of news on cable anytime, anywhere: at home, work, the gym, a shopping center or an airport. Nielsen ratings, however, show that each of the three major network newscasts draws far more viewers than even the best-rated cable news show.

On the final night of the 2000 Democratic convention, for instance, CBS, ABC and NBC reached about 13.5 million homes, Nielsen Media Research found, while CNN, MSNBC and Fox reached about 2.5 million.

Nonetheless, cable channels will have undeniable prominence at the conventions. Fox News Channel scored a suite of skyboxes with some of the best camera angles at FleetCenter in Boston. BET, which targets African American viewers, got what a Democratic official said was its first skybox.

Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe personally delivered Comedy Central's convention floor pass in a recent appearance on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." A Comedy Central executive said the show, which will be based at Boston University for the week, did not have such access four years ago.

Courting comedians is, of course, a bit risky. At the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia, Stewart declared, "We're a fake news organization and this is a fake news event, so I think we're the only people who should be here."

MTV has sent correspondents to several recent conventions and will do so again -- this time, adding to its on-air team Ana Marie Cox, editor of the political gossip website Wonkette.com.

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