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News Outlets Prep for Surprises at This Year’s Unpredictable Political Conventions

Political Conventions Unpredictability Donald Trump
Lola Beltran for Variety

On the penultimate night of the Republican National Convention in 2012, TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” drew an audience greater than any individual network’s coverage of the GOP gathering.

This embarrassing testament to voter apathy was hardly a surprise: Political conventions have long been carefully stage-managed coronations — choreographed infomercials at which crowd reaction is about as spontaneous as a sitcom’s in-studio audience.

But this year’s gatherings promise a twist: There’s sure to be news, particularly at the Republican National Convention, July 18-21 in Cleveland, and likely at the Democratic gathering the following week, July 25-28 in Philadelphia.

As they always have, the cable news networks will air nonstop coverage of the proceedings, this year hoping to replicate the record interest drummed up by some of the current cycle’s debates and forums.

ABC, CBS and NBC each will spend an hour of primetime on each night of both parties’ conventions — an hour more in total than last cycle, when the conventions ran for three days instead of four. All the networks are bringing their star news talent and signature morning shows and newscasts to the conventions.

ABC also has plans to break in for special reports at other times during the day, while CBS News is deploying anchors and journalists at or near the floor of both conventions rather than the traditional sky boxes. ABC News also will provide gavel-to-gavel livestream coverage on its website, while CBS News has partnered with Twitter to offer wall-to-wall coverage.

NBC’s sister cable network MSNBC will devote more than 20 hours each day the conventions are in session, starting with “Morning Joe” and ending with late-night coverage from Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow and Brian Williams. NBCNews.com also will feature lifestream updates and the network’s primetime specials.

The one hour of primetime broadcasters are devoting to the conventions is a far cry from generations ago, when the conventions dominated network schedules, but it is a reversal from recent cycles that have seen a gradual scaling back in the primetime hours.

There’s a good reason for this year’s shift: unpredictability.

“[Conventions] all have news value, but I can’t remember the news value and interest level that this year’s have,” says Marc Burstein, senior executive producer of special events for ABC News. “We are committing more resources, and we are more ‘all in’ on the two conventions than we have been in a long time.”

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominees, will both be looking to the conventions to help reverse their negative approval ratings. Clinton also still faces the question of whether Bernie Sanders’ army of energetic millennials will warm to a nominee who, to many of them, personifies the establishment, even after Sanders endorsed her on Tuesday.

For his part, Trump is battling the last remnants of the Never Trump movement — led by conservatives who can’t bring themselves to endorse his insurgent campaign. There’s even the prospect of turbulence on the convention floor from those still dismayed that he has captured the nomination, and perhaps even a movement to try to withhold Trump votes on the first ballot.

Party Prep: Workers assemble temporary structures outside Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center ahead of the Democratic National Convention. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Protests and beefed up security are always good convention topics, but they figure to be big storylines over the next few weeks in what already has been a turbulent political season.

“My sense is that both of these conventions will be as newsworthy as we’ve seen in many years,” says Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief and senior vice president at CNN. “What you effectively have in both parties is that the convention will be the moment when the party and the nominee need to help stitch the party back together again after a tough primary.”

The drama has already begun. Later this week, Republicans gather to set convention rules, credentialing, and a party platform that will be important for Trump if he is to dismiss the conversation that anybody could challenge him for the nomination, Feist says. Add to that the expected announcements by Trump and Clinton of their running mates, perhaps in the days preceding the conventions.

Fox News will go full-throttle at both events. Talk show “The Five” is leaving New York on July 15 for a two-week road trip to Cleveland and Philadelphia, with stops along the way. Signature shows such as “Fox & Friends,” “The Kelly File With Megyn Kelly,” and “Special Report With Bret Baier” will originate from both cities. Baier and Kelly will anchor primetime coverage with special editions of “America’s Election Headquarters.”

CNN added 50 staffers to its political operation before the campaign season started, Feist notes. “We will of course have more people [at the conventions] because we have a larger team than we have ever had, probably the largest team covering this campaign in the country.”

The last truly suspenseful convention was in 1976, when President Gerald Ford fought off a challenge from Ronald Reagan. The last time a presidential nominee announced his running mate during convention week was 1980, when Reagan selected George H.W. Bush, and that was after a brief few hours in which it looked like Reagan’s team was courting Ford to be his No. 2.

As a comparison, in 2012, with the Democratic ticket in place and featuring an incumbent, Republican nominee Mitt Romney revealed his choice for VP, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, more than two weeks before the convention.

Joseph Angotti, a veteran of NBC News who is a visiting distinguished professor at Monmouth College, is among those going to Cleveland. “I decided I’ve covered too many dull, boring conventions that I had to be at this one,” he says.

The coverage will spread well beyond news divisions. ABC’s “The View” will have convention updates, and HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” is planning, for the first time, special convention coverage. “When you’ve got a weekly show and there’s more than a week’s worth of crap happening, you’ve got to do extra shows,” says “Real Time” executive producer Scott Carter. “Late Night With Seth Meyers” will feature a live episode following Trump’s acceptance speech on July 21.

Trump has said he wants some “showbiz” at his convention, meaning he aims to make it more than just a collection of speeches from longtime party stalwarts. This is partly by necessity, as many in the party establishment are staying away, including both presidents Bush and the two most recent nominees, Romney (who continues to be a Trump detractor) and John McCain.

Instead, Trump will fill the week with appearances by his family members, former primary rivals like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and a smattering of celebrities from the world of sports and business; he has said that basketball coach Bobby Knight will speak, and that he has invited boxing promoter Don King. Trump has promised to soon announce a lineup of speakers.

When it comes to Hollywood figures, it’s been a challenge to get celebrities for GOP slots, a reflection of the left-leaning industry. Even in years when political passions are less inflamed, it has been difficult for Republicans to get A-list entertainment figures to participate.

Grand Finales
TV viewership for past conventions on their peak final nights
37.5m 2012 DNC
30.3m 2012 RNC
38.4m 2008 DNC
38.9m 2008 RNC

Fred Davis, who was creative director at the 2008 Republican convention, quips that getting entertainers for that gathering “got to the point where we were looking for anybody — even if we could get Grandma Moses to come. People would be really supportive, but then they would say, ‘Gosh, I can’t make it that week.’ It’s funny how busy everybody was.”

On the final night of the 2012 Republican convention, Clint Eastwood’s appearance, with a chair as a prop, was meant to be a welcome surprise; instead, it turned out to be an unintentional sensation, one of those rare moments in which a carefully crafted event goes off-script.

This year, viewers may tune in hoping for more such moments. “As I tell people, this is not your father’s and grandfather’s convention. It is going to be so different because of the uncertainty,” says Steve Scully, political editor, senior executive producer, and host on C-SPAN. “Donald Trump is an entertainer. He knows how to produce programming. You are going to very much see a different flair with a Donald Trump convention.”

Several showbiz figures are booked at events in Cleveland during the week, although they are not part of the official convention. The Recording Industry Assn. of America is hosting a benefit for Musicians on Call at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame featuring a performance by Third Eye Blind. Cleveland Rocks, a concert benefiting veterans’ organizations, has booked Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock. Joe Walsh was to perform at the veterans’ event but backed out because of concerns it would be associated with the Republican Party, according to a statement on his website. Organizers have said the event is nonpartisan.

Meanwhile, during the week of the Democratic convention, those on the bill for a series of events for House Democrats include Janelle Monáe, Idina Menzel, Cyndi Lauper, Tony Goldwyn, and Bryan Cranston. Also scheduled to perform in and near Philadelphia during convention week are Lady Gaga, Lenny Kravitz, Fergie, and Snoop Dogg, though they are not officially part of the political program. Walsh is scheduled for an event in Philadelphia co-hosted by the Distilled Spirits Council.

The conventions themselves traditionally include a few speakers from entertainment as well as musical acts. Ricky Kirshner, executive producer of the Democratic Convention along with Vicangelo Bulluck, says that there will be “a couple of spots day or night where we will have entertainment. We try to tie it to the topic we are talking about.” Such figures, he says, “should have a reason and a message.”

He declined to say just who will be speaking at the convention, other than to say that “invitations are out” and “the big names will be there.” He said that one innovation this year will be more “second screen” experiences via social media like Twitter and Snapchat. “I think you will see different ways to watch a convention,” he says.

Kirshner has worked on every Democratic convention since 1992. Although the look of the proceedings has changed, with more screens and video elements, planners can’t lose sight of the purpose of the proceedings. “A lot of people forget that the conventions are there to do the party’s business,” he says.

Security will be especially tight. The Secret Service is conducting additional screening of media attendees and has announced a long list of items prohibited from the arenas. The obvious: weapons and hazardous materials. The not-so-obvious: selfie sticks and balloons.

Both cities received a $50 million federal grant to provide for security, and Cleveland used part of its funds to buy 300 bicycles to assist police officers’ mobility throughout the city. Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams told reporters that the city would be ramping up its security for the convention in the wake of the sniper shootings of police officers in Dallas.

Police also are reportedly working on plans that will keep ideologically opposed protest groups away from each other.

Politically charged music supergroup Prophets of Rage, which comprises members of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, and Cypress Hill, plans to perform in Cleveland during the Republican convention; guitarist Tom Morello told Bloomberg Politics last month that the city is the “perfect place” to “cause a ruckus.”

It’s comments such as those, as well as the numerous protests and accusations of violence that have emerged at Trump rallies, that are leading media outlets this year to devote more resources to cover what’s happening outside the arena. There are questions as to whether protesters will break out of designated areas; some may even manage to make it inside the event. News divisions have made special preparations for coverage of any possible unrest.

ABC’s Burstein says the network is prepared to cover any disturbances as part of the larger political discourse. “We don’t want to overplay it, but we don’t want to underplay it, either,” he says.

Noting that public interest in the conventions is “off the charts,” he says ABC News will break into regular programming during the week whenever necessary. “The bar to do that,” he adds, “will not be very high.”