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
"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
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! …