Networks Cede Coverage of Political Conventions to Cable

Article excerpt

To cover the national political conventions in Los Angeles and Philadelphia this summer, CNN has so many programs planned, so many correspondents and anchors preparing to parachute in, that the cable network asked for not one but four skybooths in each convention hall.

"We will be on the air with more coverage from the conventions than the hours the conventions are in session," said Rick Kaplan, the president of CNN.

But at ABC News, once a source for hours and hours of convention coverage, the debate is not how lavishly to swarm over the gatherings, but how thriftily; among the ideas is one that would put Peter Jennings in a "virtual skybooth," a studio outside the convention hall that would be cheaper than a booth inside.

"We're not going to cover this convention the way we have in the past," said Marc Burstein, executive producer of special events for ABC News. "You have to be living on Mars to not know we're living in a new era of fiscal reality."

The quadrennial political conventions have traditionally served as a kind of national show-and-tell for the broadcast network news divisions, an opportunity for news stars to roam the convention floors for immense blocks of prime time and impress viewers with the breadth and depth of their political reportage. But now, the approach to the proceedings is merely one more example of the radical shift in election coverage on television. CNN and its cable competitors -- C-Span, MSNBC and Fox News Channel -- have usurped the role of the old broadcast networks as the dominant source for the nation's political news.

In the competitive primary season that has drawn to a close, evidence was abundant that the broadcast networks -- particularly CBS and ABC, which do not own cable news outlets -- had been muscled out of their once pre-eminent positions. For one thing, of the more than 20 televised debates involving the Democratic and Republican candidates for president, all but two were on cable.

CBS News, whose election coverage was once considered the most thorough and informed on television, broadcast not a single debate, and its principal anchor, Dan Rather, participated in none, an outcome Rather says he regrets.

"We have a public responsibility beyond delivering stockholder value," he said in an interview. "In some ways, we have abrogated that civic trust."

Although Rather's counterparts at NBC and ABC, Tom Brokaw and Jennings, each moderated forums, Jennings was placed in the awkward position of presiding over one that was not shown nationally on his own network, ABC, but on MSNBC.

And on each election night of the primary campaign, from the Iowa caucuses through Super Tuesday, the cable channels offered chatter into the wee hours, while the networks were confined to brief interruptions of regular programming.

The erosion of political coverage on broadcast networks has been occurring for several elections. Some in the news business describe as a watershed the decision by ABC's Nightline to depart the 1996 Republican convention on the second night because of a dearth of real news. This year, with the maturing of two four-year-old news channels, MSNBC and Fox, that now compete with CNN, the shift to cable has solidified. "Cable is the political conduit of the air," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "If you don't have that cable coming into your house, you're getting a whole heck of a lot less information about politics."

Kohut's organization reported recently that besides the Internet, cable television is the only segment of the political media that is attracting a growing news audience. In fact, Pew found that for the first time, viewers named cable more often as a major outlet for political coverage than either network or local news.

The migration of political news to the narrowcasting culture of cable reflects the growing compartmentalization of news-viewing habits: there is ESPN for sports addicts, E! …