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Networks tune out American voters

They are more interested in the bottom line than informing the public about the conventions

By Curtis Gans
Curtis Gans is director of the non-partisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which conducts research on problems associated with voter participation and civic disengagement.

July 23, 2004

If citizens view next week's Democratic National Convention on any of the three largest networks--ABC, CBS or NBC--here are some of the speakers they'll neither see nor hear:

Former President Jimmy Carter, a Nobel Prize winner, arguably the greatest ex-president ever and one of the few major moral forces in America; Barack Obama, the convention keynoter, likely to be the next senator from Illinois and, because of that, the brightest African-American star on the horizon; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Rep. Robert Menendez, two of the most eloquent Hispanic politicians in America; former Vice President Al Gore; Sen. Edward Kennedy and Ron Reagan, son of the late Republican icon.

A partial list of speakers who viewers will neither see nor hear while watching the Republican Convention on the networks in August includes: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the eloquent and unpredictable Sen. John McCain, First Lady Laura Bush, Education Secretary Rod Paige and Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, the Democratic apostate turned Bush supporter.

Network viewers also will miss the traditional roll call of the states, any films elucidating the biographies and achievements of the candidates and most of the hoopla whose exuberance and joy contrasts with the generally lugubrious and cynical view Americans have of politics.

Citizens will miss all of this because the networks have decided in concert to give only three prime-time hours (out of 12) to the coverage of each convention and to televise only three speakers at each convention (Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, the presumptive Democratic nominees, and former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic convention; and President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, the presumptive GOP nominees, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Republican convention).

The networks have justified their decision on two grounds:

- There is no doubt about the nominations of either party, there are likely to be no fights over platforms or rules and there is no "news" at these conventions other than the candidates' speeches.

- If citizens want to see more of these conventions, they can turn to cable and satellite channels or the Internet.

Neither argument holds water because there will be a news story at both conventions.

Each party will attempt to make its best case to the voters, showcasing those leaders who will be responsible for carrying that case to the people. It is by far a more affirmative case than citizens are likely to hear and see through paid political advertising, increasingly colored and cynical snippet coverage on the nightly news and in the programmed responses creeping into the debates.

The public deserves to get an affirmative message about each party and about politics in general. They will have enough negativity later.

And while it is true that the public can get fuller coverage on cable, satellite and the Internet, in a democracy an informed public is not optional. The average nightly prime-time viewing audience for ABC, CBS and NBC combined is 24 million (nearly 30 million if Fox TV is added). The average prime-time viewing audience for the combined cable and satellite channels giving more extensive coverage to the conventions (PBS, CNN, Fox News Channel, CNBC, MSNBC and MTV) is 6.6 million (with small increments for C-SPAN and one wrestling channel, which also will be providing full prime-time coverage). Those who select one of these cable or satellite channels or seek convention coverage on the Internet are already politically interested and committed. Those who watch only the networks are the general public. It is the general public that needs to be engaged and informed.

For nearly three decades, the three major networks and their affiliates have been sloughing off their responsibility for the coverage of politics and public affairs in favor of more lucrative, but profoundly less important, prime-time entertainment. So between the two conventions, gavel-to-gavel coverage has been reduced to six prime-time hours out of 24.

The 1996 and 2000 elections received the least nightly news coverage of any national election since television became a staple in American life, according to the Center for Media and Politics. And except for matters of national security, presidents can no longer expect network coverage of their press conferences held during prime time. Fox and NBC did not carry one of the 2000 presidential debates, choosing instead to air baseball (Fox) and entertainment (NBC).

A few prime-time hours of convention, election night, debate and presidential press conference coverage won't even put a scratch on the networks' financial bottom lines. Their failure to increase convention coverage will speak volumes about their commitment to corporate profit and their lack of commitment to public service and citizen edification.

Virtually all polling suggests most Americans primarily rely on broadcast television (not cable, satellite or the Internet) for information about politics. Because of the lightning-rod nature of the Bush presidency and policies, voter turnout probably will be higher this year. But the long-term trend has been citizen disengagement, disinterest, cynicism and reduced civic knowledge--to which network policies of diminished political coverage have been a contributing force.

America's political health deserves better. The networks need to be cajoled or coerced into reversing course and restoring the tradition of commitment to citizen edification, a source of network pride decades ago.

But if the restoration of civic mission is not voluntary, consideration should be given to the re-regulation of the industry based on market share and profitability--those with the greatest reach and resources should be required to bear the largest burden of fully covering the essential events of American politics and providing the public with the information it needs to be informed and engaged.

The choice is clear.

Either the networks will lead in helping to restore a greater degree of political interest and knowledge or they will continue to contribute to--to borrow and paraphrase the late media critic Neil Postman--amusing ourselves to a political death.

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune