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July 29, 2004

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Are Conventions Worth Watching?
Cable TV and Network News Have Different Answers

By Ed Fouhy
Thursday, July 29, 2004

It’s the classic chicken and egg question: Does the fact that the Big Three broadcast networks have cut their coverage to the minimum cause public interest in the Democratic Convention to fade, or does the lack of coverage lead viewers to conclude that the conventions aren’t worth watching?

The argument was originally joined by ABC anchorman Peter Jennings and PBS anchor Jim Lehrer at a Harvard conference last Sunday.

“The convention is an infomercial,” said Jennings whose network, like the other broadcast networks, is devoting just three hours to the week’s political talk fest.

“Yes, but an infomercial for what?” countered Lehrer. “These are four of the most important eight days of the political year. We’re about to elect a president of the United States at a time when we have young people dying in our name overseas, we just had a report from the 9/11 commission which says we are not safe as a nation and one of these two groups of people is going to run our country. The fact that you three networks decided it was not important enough to run in prime time -- the message that gives the American people is huge.”

Ratings are inconclusive, although the network public relations people are telling reporters otherwise.

The facts are these: For the first night of the convention, NBC’s audience was down from 5.9 million four years ago to 4.5 million; ABC’s numbers went from 6 million to 4.4 million and CBS fell from 5.2 million to 4.6 million. A big turn-off as the networks would have you believe?

Well, maybe.

Over at the all-news cable networks, they are touting a robust increase in their audiences: CNN is up from 1.7 million four years ago to 2 million; Fox has grown from 400,000 to 1.6 million and MSNBC is glowing about its 1.1 million viewers Monday night compared with just 607,000 four years ago. (See "By the Numbers" on the previous page.)

As for Jim Lehrer, his prime-time coverage on PBS grew from 1.9 million at the last convention to 2.5 million on Monday night, even though WGBH-TV, his network’s powerhouse Boston affiliate, is choosing not to broadcast convention coverage in prime time. On Tuesday night Channel 2 carried a “Nova” documentary on Russian missile forces.

A station spokeswoman said that viewers could catch up with the convention action on their sister station, WGBX Channel 44. And catch up they did; Channel 44's audience was 50 percent greater than Channel 2’s.

Channel 2's editorial decision seemed all the more curious in light of the interest viewers are showing in PBS’s gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Tuesday night, Lehrer’s audience was up 26 percent from Monday and up a cool 32 percent from the same night four years ago. In New York City, the convention pulled in the kind of audience that public television normally gets only for its very top shows. And the numbers were almost as encouraging in the heartland where PBS stations in Columbus, Ohio, Kansas City and Saint Louis also reported high viewer interest, as reflected in the Nielsen ratings.

The audience interest comes as no surprise to Harvard political scientist Thomas Patterson. His research shows voters are paying attention this year in a way unseen since 1992. “Every election indicator shows overall interest is up,” Patterson says. His surveys show the uptick isn’t just a few points. “It’s a lot.”

On Tuesday night, Lehrer and company had the broadcast audience pretty much to themselves, as the three major networks opted out of live coverage. So no one is making any claims quite yet, but at least at midpoint in the convention week, it looks as though Jennings is the man with egg on his face.

Ed Fouhy is a veteran network television news executive who is covering his fifteenth national political convention.

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