TV coverage of the Democratic National Convention felt like 96 hours of yelling before somebody finally makes a big speech. I suspect this is how holiday vacations play out for many American families.
By the time presidential nominee John F. Kerry took the stage Thursday, the buildup had long since spun out of control.
"This convention lives or dies on the strength of his performance," Tom Brokaw proclaimed on MSNBC. "Could his performance tonight make or break the campaign?" exhaled John Gibson of Fox News Channel. "This is a very lonely moment for John Kerry," said MSNBC commentator Dee Dee Myers, adding (all together now): "The entire campaign is on his shoulders."
At 7:58 p.m. (Pacific time), just in time to beat the broadcast networks' hourlong prime-time quota, Kerry finished his speech of a lifetime.
Brokaw magnanimously informed his viewers that had the speech gone over, NBC would not have bailed out.
Amid the celebration, there was some problem with the release of confetti and balloons (convention producer Don Mischer was heard live on CNN uttering a very Dick Cheney-like epithet about the hang-up). Later, CNN's Judy Woodruff acknowledged that viewers "may have heard a profanity."
If I could just speak for the American people: We heard it, and we forgive you.
Then I looked anxiously to the same cable news networks that had told me how make-or-break the speech was. On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough was talking about the broadcast network-imposed deadline on Kerry's speech and the shame of having to "rush history." Kerry-Edwards campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill acknowledged to Brian Williams on MSNBC that Kerry was cognizant of a witching hour.
Wait, what about the make-or-break, whole-campaign-on-his-shoulders question? Dee Dee, are you there?
This is how cable news, home to most of the TV convention coverage, handles any story: They push the most salable morsel, then abandon it for the next one.
And certainly the Democrats were largely responsible for making Kerry and his Vietnam experience the convention's only theme, having airbrushed so-called wedge issues -- gay marriage, guns, anti-Bush fervor -- out of the proceedings.
The convention, to that end, may have been the first nationally televised event aimed not at a national audience but at "the 10% undecideds in the 18 battleground states," as Tim Russert put it on MSNBC.
This was the game within the game: Democrats determined not to throw an ornery convention, TV in the arena but, with few exceptions -- PBS, C-SPAN -- kind of refusing to show it. This made for a disconnected viewing experience. The delegates in the hall, you got the sense, were props, there because it wouldn't have looked like a convention otherwise.
"A great deal has been said," CNN's Anderson Cooper summed up Thursday, "hundreds of speeches over the last four days" -- some of which Cooper's show had preempted.
Ultimately you had to flip to C-SPAN to check that the convention was actually going on. Usually it was. A congresswoman from California or the mayor of Detroit was onstage, making a speech. But then I would flip back to MSNBC or CNN or Fox News. More yelling. Sometimes it was a Republican on camera, the words "extreme makeover" in the background, assailing Kerry's record as a senator -- another voice shouting over a convention that nobody seemed to be watching in the first place.