Appearing on ABC’s NIGHTLINE PROGRAM during the last day of the Democratic National Convention, Roone Arledge, president of ABC News appeared uncomfortable with his power and disingenuous in his explanations. He had been quoted the previous day as saying the Democratic convention was so boring that he was thinking about cutting back his network’s future coverage of such gatherings.
Like the other two networks, ABC was allotting all of two hours prime time a day, compared to their gavel to gavel convention coverage in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.
Here was Arledge on NIGHTLINE trying not to be the power that he is and not too convincingly saying that if the Conventions were more “deliberative and adversarial, they’ll find us broadening coverage, not narrowing it.”
What Arledge never mentioned was that the networks are not making as much money on those two hours as they would were they staying with their sitcoms and movies. The audience ratings were down during Convention week, Programs like Hooperman and Spenser for Hire and Cagney & Lacey were replaced by these intruding every-four-year conventions where the next President of the United States is nominated.
There is another point to keep in mind in this growing debate over Convention coverage. The networks and their owner-operated stations are tenants, using the public airwaves very profitably and paying no rent to the landlords — the American people — who own these airwaves. This point escaped House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-WA) who responded to Arledge’s trial balloon with the words: “If television wants to cut down on their coverage, that’s their business.
Foley’s comments were contained in a Washington Post article whose banner headline was “Slipping TV Ratings May Doom Four-Day Conventions.”
The outcry against this electronic corporate arrogance was less than overwhelming. It was restricted to disagreements over how boring the conventions at prime time are and to what degree should the convention planners further adjust their programs to the television ratings requirements. Should they reduce their applause, should they reduce further the length of introductory speeches, should they cut out the lengthy roll calls, should they offer some of their colorful mavericks for interviews?
Let’s secure a proper frame of reference here. We are talking about a total of sixteen hours of television, devoted to two Presidential nominating conventions, out of a total of thousands of network television hours over a four year period! It is this tiny window onto high level American politics that is being considered for shuttering so that Monday Night baseball can play unperturbed.
Arledge told NIGHTLINE that there are two reasons why ABC covers conventions — their news value and as a civics lesson on the political process. The news is largely made in the primaries and little civics come out of conventions nowadays, he declared.
But Conventions are loaded with controversial interview prospects discussing issues, controversies, candidates and process. Also there are outside protestors shunted out of sight by the authorities but not out of camera lens.
Too much network time goes to interviewing their own reporters and commentators and rote-ridden loyalists polishing their candidates. If coverage is boring, it is because it is being done by boring, ultra-cautious network programmers, anchors and reporters following a set approach guaranteed to yawn.
It took CBS anchor Dan Rather to sound the proper note when he expressed opposition to any further cutback of television coverage:
“The selection of the president of the United States is a good story, as good as it gets,” Rather observed, noting that “Conventions are a chain of history going back to 1832. I don’t want us to do anything that would contribute to breaking that chain. Not everything in life should be made for television. There are things more important.”
By law, television stations are public trustees. They are tenants licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. If they were a little more enterprising in their convention reporting, more people would watch and the tight management of the Convention by the dominant candidate’s team would not be able to so readily turn off so many in the television audience.