Networks: Conventions bad; bug-eating good

Despite bowing to no one in my admiration for Ted Koppel, the newsman’s newsman has fallen prey to thinking inside the box — a narrow-mindedness that also has gripped network news divisions, major sponsors and the Democratic and Republican national committees.

The Democrats mount their quadrennial convention this week, and grizzled broadcasters like Koppel insist it’s destined to be a news-free John Kerry infomercial that merits sparse attention from the major networks. Eight years ago, Koppel walked out on the GOP’s powwow to make precisely that point.

CBS News president Andrew Heyward articulated this theme to reporters last week, saying scaled-back coverage — a mere hour in primetime on three of the four nights — is more than sufficient.

While acknowledging CBS might miss capturing a seminal moment, he said, “The bigger risk is that we will spend a lot of time and a lot of money on something that has minimal news value.”

Yes, God knows the networks never waste time on stories with minimal news value — unless your fascination with Donald Trump can actually be contained by his weekly appearances on “The Apprentice.”

Indeed, a cynic might reference all the news-challenged cross-promotional fare the news divisions have covered voraciously — from the “Friends” and “Frasier” finales to weekly evictions on “Survivor” and “The Bachelor.”

Then there’s the riveting programming viewers would be deprived of should the networks go wall-to-wall in primetime, eliminating “George Lopez” reruns, the incomprehensible dating show “For Love or Money” and the latest shenanigans on “Big Brother.”

Still, we’re expected to believe it’s somehow dangerous for networks to be hoodwinked into devoting time to the conventions every four years during the summer. Moreover, even the infomercial aspect — the messages that the parties and candidates choose to put forth — proves instructive, as highlighted by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews special “Picking Our President,” demonstrating how significant these affairs used to be and the impact even peripheral speakers have frequently had.

I’m not suggesting the networks need to blow out their entire lineups. Yet in terms of public service, there’s clearly more to be gained even from a blathering infomercial than a rerun of “According to Jim” — especially since TV does such a half-assed job of covering politics, focusing less on issues than on yelling and poll-taking.

Besides, the major parties are spending unprecedented amounts on paid TV spots, which one might think would buy them extra consideration. In essence, broadcasters are saying, “We’re happy to take your money without extending any kind of value-added bonus,” which is less than Reebok and Ford have come to expect when sponsoring “Survivor” and “American Idol.”

Far be it from me, however, to risk appearing cynical. My proposal is that the parties and networks simply haven’t gone far enough in adapting these conventions to conform to current TV sensibilities and tastes.

Those aforementioned reality shows might light the path toward how to transform the conventions into a ready-for-primetime player. This will require tradeoffs in terms of decorum, of course, but it’s not like the events don’t jump to TV’s tune already.

For starters, each convention could pick some loudmouth — say, Pat Buchanan or James Carville — and vote them out of the hall. Catering to local TV, organizers then could stage a high-speed chase outside the venue, or maybe through it.

Introducing a game element, NBC could unleash obnoxious “Access Hollywood” anchor Billy Bush (a George W. Bush cousin) on the convention floors, seeing how long attendees can endure talking to him as a clock runs in the screen’s corner. Perhaps even fix up delegates from different states and send them out on a dinner date, returning the next night to see whether they hit it off. (Preferably said delegates will be single, but with the Democrats, you never know.)

Nor need the conventions be a money-losing proposition. Savvy sponsors should treat the showcase like a football halftime show, with the “Rolaids Party Platform Moment,” “MasterCard ‘Voting Is Priceless’ Sweepstakes” and “Republican National Convention: Brought to You by Halliburton.”

Hey, it’s showbiz, baby, or didn’t anybody notice Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason stage-managing for President Clinton and producer Don Mischer orchestrating this year’s Democratic event?

Please, though, don’t say this would be undignified. Speeches are already scheduled and calibrated to suit the networks, as is every shred of set design and imagery at the convention.

As for the political parties, to borrow a line from the sanitized basic-cable cut of “Scent of a Woman”: “Forget you, too.” Both have protested the lack of coverage half-heartedly at best, largely because the last thing they really want is meaningful analysis that might interfere with their paid advertising onslaught, where they can saturate the airwaves with slickly produced 30-second messages over which they have total control.

Apparently hoping to deflect criticism, ABC and CBS have outlined plans to provide gavel-to-gavel convention feeds via broadband or digital or some such, which ought to be thrilling to the seven people with access to it. NBC, meanwhile, can punt to MSNBC, which joins Fox News Channel, CNN, PBS and C-SPAN in providing expansive coverage.

“If I felt it was the only place people could see it, then it would be more of an issue,” said Heyward in what’s little more than a rationalization, since networks routinely pile onto stories blanketed by cable.

So just as the conventions once conveyed a sense of drama, with a little creativity they can again. Now get the torches out, and as they say on the dating shows, prepare for “an incredible journey,” before the news divisions’ last flicker of gumption fades to black.

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