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Convention coverage is a no-win situation for broadcasters

August 27, 2012|By Joe Flint
  • Broadcast networks are scaling back on convention coverage.
Broadcast networks are scaling back on convention coverage. (Associated Press )

Every four years, the Republican and Democratic parties hold conventions to formally nominate their candidates for president of the United States.

And every four years the broadcast networks -- CBS, ABC and NBC -- try to present a bare minimum of coverage without getting criticized too much by media watchdogs for failing to serve the public interest, which is a requirement of holding broadcast licenses from the Federal Communications Commission.

There was a time when the broadcast networks provided nonstop prime-time coverage of the conventions. Now, an hour a night is about all the networks can stomach.

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There was also a time when the conventions provided a lot of excitement and real news. Now the conventions are little more than infomercials for their own parties and vicious attacks on the rival party. There is a lot of preaching to the converted and few surprises.

Ironically, it was television coverage from the broadcast networks that played a key role in turning the conventions into snooze fests. Battles on the convention floor, real debates over platforms and the choice of a running mate were fine when there were only print and radio reporters around.

Video changed everything. Both parties soon recognized it wasn't in their interest to let anyone see how the sausage got made. 

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For the networks, that lack of action meant fewer viewers, which made the millions of dollars needed to cover conventions harder to justify.

It is not as if the fact that the broadcast networks are mailing in their coverage means that there is nowhere else to turn for viewers. Cable channels -- CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, C-SPAN, Bloomberg and even little Current TV -- will be providing heavy-duty coverage. There is also no shortage of convention coverage on the Web for all those cord-cutters out there. 

Broadcasters could use their digital channels to carry more convention coverage so those few people who don't have a pay-TV service are not shut out. That would be a money-loser, but it would also remove some of the criticism about their blase attitude toward the conventions.

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There is no doubt that broadcasters could better serve the public, particularly on the local level. There is more to local news than car chases and homicides.

But it's hard to accuse them of being negligent for not playing along with the two parties on providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of their scripted conventions, especially with so many other outlets doing just that. The days of Walter Cronkite and the three networks are long gone, and there is little to be gained by pretending that is not the case.

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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.

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