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At the networks, reined-in coverage

THE CAMPAIGN ON TV

August 17, 2008|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — With THE cable news networks going nearly round the clock with political convention coverage, will viewers still turn to ABC, CBS and NBC for their more limited dispatches?

The broadcast networks are counting on it. All three have committed to do slightly more coverage of the Democratic and Republican gatherings than they did in 2004, when they were chided for carrying prime-time reports on only three of the four nights of each convention.

This year, all three networks have committed to producing live hourlong news specials each night, airing at 7 p.m. on the West Coast.

The networks' daily newscasts -- including the flagship evening broadcasts anchored by Brian Williams, Charles Gibson and Katie Couric -- will also originate from Denver and St. Paul, Minn., during the events. But it remains to be seen whether the long-dominant broadcasters will be able to attract sizable audiences for their reporting.

Dave Davis, executive vice president of ABC News, said the distilled broadcast coverage will appeal to a large number of people who are not seeking gavel-to-gavel reports.

"Our function, in a way, is to do some of the work ahead of time for the viewers to make sure they don't have to watch continuously to get the information they need," he said.

Others wonder if there's still a need to devote prime time to much of the conventions. Without a contested nomination at stake, many news executives argue that the events generate little news and amount to four days of party advertising.

"If somebody pushed me against the wall, I could not argue persuasively that this is something we must do every night of the week," said Paul Friedman, CBS News' senior vice president. "There isn't much of a story until the night the candidate does his acceptance speech."

"I would argue that we will spend a lot of money at the conventions that some of us would much rather see added to the pot of money we have to cover the campaign," he added.

The production costs of the events are enormous, running about $6 million per network -- a major investment at a time when news budgets have been curtailed.

PBS' Jim Lehrer believes the investment is well worth it. He will be anchoring three hours of live coverage each night on "The NewsHour," beginning at 5 p.m. PDT. "I think the value is huge," he said. "This is when the deal gets to be closed, and it's the beginning of the shared national experience that ends in November.

"The conventions, the idea that they're not news -- that's baloney," he added. "What is more exciting than electing the president of the United States?"

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