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Networks May Face a 2016 Twist: ‘Something Happening’ at Political Conventions

The major broadcast networks have long viewed the party conventions as infomercials for their presidential candidates, relegating the coverage to an hour of primetime.

With the threat of a contested convention, they might have to reconsider those plans, and dip into what is almost certainly a rather cobwebbed playbook.

Consider the possible drama. Donald Trump was asked on CNN on Wednesday what he’d do if an effort is afoot to have a brokered Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. “I think you’d have riots. I think you’d have riots,” he responded.

While Trump’s remark may have had the tone of a don’t you dare think about it threat to the GOP establishment, it’s also a reminder of the very real possibility that this year’s RNC won’t be a love-fest, as both parties’ conventions have been for more than a generation.

“How about the shock of anything happening at a convention?” MSNBC’s Brian Williams marveled to Rachel Maddow on Tuesday night, just as the final votes were coming in from the Missouri primary.

The party leaders “will be pushing the cameras out of the room rather than begging the cameras to be there,” Maddow said, as they marveled at the idea of days-on-end of must-see TV and of networks having to dig into old boxes of old memos on how to cover such a scenario.

As voting results were coming in from five states this week, the talk across the cable news landscape was of the chance that no candidate has a majority of delegates by the time of the July 18-21 gathering, or even after the first ballot.

It’s been 40 years since a candidate failed to collect a majority of delegates by the time of a convention. That was in 1976, when President Gerald Ford was challenged from the right by Ronald Reagan. But Ford managed to sway enough uncommitted delegates to gain a majority on the first ballot.

At the time, there was still enough drama in political conventions to warrant near gavel-to-gavel coverage among the broadcast networks. By the late 1980s, however, the networks began to scale back on coverage as journalists found less to report.

In 1996, two days in at the Republican Convention in San Diego, Ted Koppel told “Nightline” viewers that the event was an “infomercial” and left because there was no news to cover. In 2012, the broadcast networks were down to one hour per night, if that.

Still, cable networks never stopped blanketing the conventions with coverage, adding to the thousands of credentialed journalists descending on a host city. Fox News handily beat other networks in its RNC coverage in 2012, while CNN was second to NBC in coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

This year is shaping up to be a less-then-traditional race. Debates have delivered record ratings, and the news networks have tried to expand the number of events by staging town halls, which also have given them a ratings nudge.

Before the contours of this cycle even become clear, CBS News already has announced plans to overhaul how it covers the conventions, with emphasis on more reporters on the ground rather than analysts in the sky booth. A drawn-out contested convention could surely put pressure on broadcast networks to devote more than an hour a night in primetime to the event.

“The networks scaled back because it was all kabuki, no drama,” Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at USC, said via email. “If the GOP nominee isn’t settled before the convention, and if the streets of Cleveland look like Trump’s events last weekend, the networks will be as tempted to give it wall-to-wall coverage the way L.A. local TV news can’t resist car chases, suspense, conflict, not to mention the whiff of potential violence. That grabs audiences’ attention.”

Plenty of commentators still think that a contested convention is media wishful thinking rather than a likely scenario, and that Trump still has a plausible shot at locking it all up before then.

But even in that scenario, the nature of Trump’s rhetoric and the raucousness of his rallies point to a very different kind of convention coronation, even if there isn’t a bitter nomination fight.

Trump got attention in part because he sounded unpolished and unscripted, so wouldn’t he try to inject some suspense into a week that has been carefully polished and planned? He rails against what’s boring and lionizes what gets attention. As he recently told Time: “It’s ratings. I go on one of these shows and the ratings double. They triple. And that gives you power. It’s not the polls. It’s the ratings.”

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