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As Democratic And Republican Conventions Go Virtual, Networks Wonder If Some Changes Will Be For Good

Ted Johnson

When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris wrapped up their first appearance as the Democratic ticket this past week to the blaring sounds of Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up, they were joined by their spouses and each waved … to no one in particular, just a large TV audience.

In that Wilmington high school gymnasium were no cheering crowds or placard-holding rallygoers, just them, some campaign staffers and members of the media.

It is a preview of what is to come next week, as Democrats embark on a convention like no other.

Speaker after speaker will appear in similarly socially distanced surroundings, with no arena to applaud, no delegates in funny hats, no big balloon drop and surely less spontaneity.

Some speakers, like Michelle Obama, already have recorded their remarks, according to sources. And while the nominees will go live from Wilmington, DE and others will appear at “message-specific” locations across the country, it will be a bit of a balance for the party to produce four nights of a captivating, smoothly run show, and a live news event.

It also could offer a glimpse at what conventions will look like in the future, even well after the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

For generations these conventions have been free of genuine suspense and more like coronations, heavy in biography and hagiography, while the media coverage has focused on the success that the candidates have in unifying their ranks, distilling their message and staging a flawless show.

“I am not worried about the spontaneity. What concerns me more is without an audience reaction, how the speeches are going to play,” said Marc Burstein, senior executive producer of special events for ABC News.

“It is very unusual, but so is watching baseball and basketball games without fans. I think Americans are getting used to this new normal that we are living in. I think it is going to be a little more disconcerting for the speaker.”

Chuck Todd, the moderator of Meet the Press and political director for NBC News, said, “Here’s what I don’t know. Does it change the way you listen to a speech? Sometimes having that live audience there can draw the viewer in?”

“But there’s another part of me that says, ‘It isn’t competing with much. This is a live event where we have more interest in this November election that we have ever had before in the history of our polling at this point in time. And whether it is good television or not, it could have huge eyeballs both weeks, almost on the curiosity factor.”

Some news executives say that this year could make for better TV. As Caitlin Conant, political director of CBS News, said, “We just don’t know what it will look like, and that is kind of good television. We haven’t seen this before.”

Both conventions will be nearly all virtual, after both parties canceled most of their plans for their chosen host cities, Milwaukee for the Democrats and Charlotte (and later Jacksonville) for Republicans.

Democrats have announced a long roster of speakers and musical acts (read it here), while Republicans have yet to unveil their full lineup the following week. President Donald Trump has said that he will deliver his acceptance speech from the grounds of the White House.

The networks are hardly pulling back. The major broadcasters are devoting an hour each night of primetime for coverage and, while that is far from the gavel-to-gavel days of yesteryear, it’s in line with recent cycles. More extensive coverage will be found on their cable counterparts, while there will be no shortage of ways to watch on streaming and social media platforms.

The Democrats have streamlined their convention to a more succinct two hours each night, which could make for an event much more geared to the TV audience.

Paradoxically, though, a program that is too slickly produced, particularly one that relies heavily on pre-taped packages, also could be a turnoff to news executives mindful of carrying simply a party telethon. Already, the networks will be depending more on pool feeds, while some are planning to label footage when it is provided by the party.

Cherie Grzech, VP Politics at Fox News’ Washington bureau, said in a recent interview that “folks in the audience cheering or booing or whatever they may do, it really changes the dynamic of what you are seeing. So that will put more pressure on us to really try to figure out how the American public is viewing and seeing this.”

Among other things, the party is planning to produce live feeds from around the country of reactions from those watching at home, according to a source and a report in The Washington Post. Democrats have again enlisted as their producer Ricky Kirshner, who has produced conventions in the past along with multiple Tony Awards and Super Bowl halftime shows.

“The challenge for the parties will be to show the networks that this is a news event,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of the The Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. “They will ask, what is the news value? Is it going to be happening live?”

As he points out, gone this year will be all the “programming around the edges.” Those are chance moments of drama — campaign officials walking around the floor, the smaller battles breaking out among the delegates, even instant reactions from those in the room. One standout moment from the Republican convention in 2016 came when Ted Cruz was booed after he declined to endorse Trump in his speech. Nothing like that can happen this time.

Lukasiewicz, who was senior vice president of specials for NBC News up until 2016, said, “I think there will be a reexamination of all of this. not just by the networks, but by the political parties. Are politcial conventions expensive for the networks? You bet. Are they expensive for political parties? Yes, enormously expensive.”

He said that the question will be whether these events still make sense in a “connected world where people on a dime turned to Zoom.” “Not just for the networks but the parties too,” he said.

Here’s one prediction: No matter what happens next week with the Democrats, Trump will label their proceedings as “boring.”

What’s hard to see is this being the cycle that brings an end to large-scale conventions altogether, along with a heavy network presence to cover them.

As expensive as they are, party activists and donors crave the gatherings, while it’d be hard for networks to avoid it. The costs of covering conventions in ordinary years runs into the millions, but they are still a marketing platform, a kickoff to the fall campaign.

It’s been generations since there was a convention where the outcome of who the nominee would be was in doubt, but networks haven’t quit on them yet.

“This convention is more of an infomercial than a news event. Nothing surprising has happened. Nothing surprising is anticipated,” said Ted Koppel on Nightline. .. . in 1996, as he pulled up stakes and left the Republican National Convention, followed by the DNC.

Four years later, though, most everyone was back. In fact, interspersed among the network skyboxes were a new category of media outlets, tech news startups.

“I think when COVID is in the rearview mirror, I certainly hope politics will return to normal,” said Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief and senior vice president of CNN. “I think there is value in having parties come together and layout what they will do for America if they are chosen. We’ll see. Any number of things could be different after COVID, but four years is a long time.”

Perhaps the better question isn’t whether networks will give up on conventions, but whether the parties will adopt some of the changes that they have been forced to make because of the pandemic.

Todd sees one idea that Democrats are adopting — speakers from across the country — as a hint of what may be to come: Multiple cities hosting each convention.

 “That is the one change I expect out of this is that it might be better to spread the wealth, it might be better doing it in multiple cities,” he said. “No city wants the lock down, the security measures that come with it these days, but I could make the argument that if you have two or three host cities on each side.” He also says that he wonders if this cycles virtual gatherings get “the parties to try to tap into the idea of a midterm national convention, try to do that virtually.”

An idea that has been floated for some time is reduce the length of each convention, but no one has backed off from four nights.

“If the major networks stopped giving free airtime for four nights, my guess is the convention wouldn’t be four nights,” Todd said. “So it feels like a big game of chicken, and remember a couple of cycles, networks attempted three nights. But right now, politics is interesting. Politics gets eyeballs.”

A scale back of convention days actually happened in 2012, when Republicans were forced to cancel the first day of their gathering in Tampa because of a threatening hurricane. It didn’t permanently change the convention format, but it did postpone the gale force that was to come. The truncated schedule gave Mitt Romney’s campaign reason to cancel a surprise convention floor appearance of then-reality star Donald Trump.

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