July 31, 2000:
The major television networks have cut back their coverage of the 2000 GOP convention, but online coverage is working to fill the gap.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
SMITH: There's a different look to this year's convention. Among the skyboxes
that used to be the private preserve of the broadcast networks, there
are some new names. Upstarts like pseudo.com and established Internet
providers like America Online.
They represent the future, the links to a virtual convention that more and more Americans are expected to log onto this week.
KATHLEEN DeLASKI, America Online: The Internet, I think, is going to soar as the medium for this and other kinds of political events, because it can allow people to determine for themselves, allow voters to determine for themselves what their experience is going to be.
TERENCE SMITH: Kathleen DeLaski is director of political and government programming for AOL, which attracts some 16 million visitors a month to its news Web sites. That number is greater than the combined daily circulation of the top 20 American newspapers but still smaller than the 25 million who watch the three evening news broadcasts on any given night. Close to a thousand news organizations here are reporting on their own Web sites. And some 35 others exist solely on the Web and occupy the workspace known as Internet Alley.
|The decline of broadcast television coverage|
|They are stepping into the void created, in part, by the
decision of the big three television networks to cut back staff and coverage
of this year's conventions.
TV REPORTER: My cable is long enough.
TERENCE SMITH: These quadrennial political festivals used to be considered great television. The first televised convention was here in Philadelphia in 1948, when the Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey.
PRES. GERALD FORD: I am honored by your nomination and I accept it.
TERENCE SMITH: As recently as 1976, the three major networks provided more than 50 hours of convention coverage. But by 1996, that had dropped to 12 hours. This year it is likely to shrink to a third of that.
ANDREW HEYWARD, President, CBS News: We all walked away from the '96 convention saying, "it's really never going to be this way again." I think what's happened, Terry, is that the conventions themselves have changed. There's less at stake. It's no longer a nomination process; it's really a coronation.
TERENCE SMITH: Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, argues that the reduced network coverage is the result of the lack of anything approximating real news.
ANDREW HEYWARD: From the journalistic point of view, we simply can't justify this amount of coverage of something that -- without using the pejorative word "infomercial" -- really is a political pep rally. Ironically, the coverage that we will give on Thursday of a purely political speech by the candidates is something that they'll be hard pressed to match when they become president.
TERENCE SMITH: The exception to this trend is the Public Broadcasting System and this broadcast, which are providing full coverage of the proceedings here and in Los Angeles.
Also, while the commercial broadcast networks have reduced their commitment, the all-news cable channels have increased theirs. CNN has close to 400 staffers here -- out of a total of 15,000 journalists overall -- and is planning to provide wall-to-wall coverage. The other two all-news cable channels, MSNBC and Fox, are here in force as well.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN: Just to say, well, because we already know who the vice presidential running mate is, we're not going to cover it, it just, you know, boggles my mind.
TERENCE SMITH: CNN's anchor Judy Woodruff says the networks are giving an important story short shrift.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We haven't had that many close elections -- something like four or five in the last century. This is an election where the candidates are talking about the issues. It's an election where the Supreme Court... it could result in a shift in the Supreme Court. You know, you've got all sorts of things at stake in this election, so to say "less, not more" doesn't make sense.
|The rise of online coverage|
SMITH: While the networks have dialed back, Internet services like AOL
have quadrupled their staff from four years ago, and are offering an enriched
diet of options for those who log on.
KATHLEEN DeLASKI, AOL: If you are interested in just dropping in on the convention floor, we'll have an ongoing 24-hour convention cam from our skybox. We'll do a pre-game show every night, which is mostly an Internet chat show-- which you participate in by typing-- but we'll have a video and audio line going so you can watch the guests.
TERENCE SMITH: Other Internet organizations have their own innovations. Pseudo.com, for instance, aiming for what it calls a "video experience on the computer," will have a 360-degree camera in its own skybox taking in events all around the arena. Users can control the camera angles they are viewing. MSNBC.com, in association with Hotline, the online political digest, will produce a live, hourly Webcast from the convention throughout the day.
MERRILL BROWN, Editor-in-chief, MSNBC on the Internet: The Internet is an extraordinarily valuable medium for covering politics. It allows you to do live television. It allows people to interact with one another, in many ways like the medium of talk radio. It allows people to get news headlines based again, on their schedules, as opposed to when somebody decides to air a broadcast or publish a newspaper.
TERENCE SMITH: Eight-month-old Voter.com bills itself as the only non- partisan site dedicated solely to politics. Former newspaper reporter Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, now directs the site and its 40 staffers at the convention.
CARL BERNSTEIN: We are the beneficiaries of the cutting back by the networks in their political coverage, because, and in fact, we have more coverage about politics than newspapers do, again, because we don't have that limitation of space. We have infinite space.
TERENCE SMITH: And there are infinite Web offerings. Some appeal to niche audiences of political junkies, while others, AOL and MSNBC.com, hope to build a mass following, with their streaming audio and video, live polls and chats.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party, which has taken six weeks to build this temporary media village and wire it with miles of cable for news outlets, is also taking its message directly to the voters. The so-called virtual convention enables people to become dot-com delegates at home, communicating with real delegates on the floor.
|The network's responsibility|
|Many television viewers are tuning in to discover that the
broadcast networks are tuning out. They're devoting between three and
five hours of coverage to the conventions this week, and many viewers
say they now believe what they see on their computer more than what they
see on their television.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Internet users find news Web sites more credible than their parent organizations. ABCnews.com -- now staffed by veteran broadcasters such as Sam Donaldson -- is, for example, more believable than ABC Television News, according to the study. At a panel discussion here in Philadelphia yesterday, network representatives and political figures debated the role and responsibilities of the broadcast operations.
EDWARD RENDELL, General Chair, DNC: The networks ought to cover four hours a night, four times a week for both conventions, and if they lose money, they ought to take their lumps.
TOM BROKAW, Anchor, NBC News: There's a suggestion here that the American people are out there wandering in some kind of intellectual wasteland unable to make a decision about what's of interest to them and how they're going to find their way to where they're going to see coverage of what is going on in the convention and the whole public service question that we put before them, it becomes like state television: You can only get one thing, which would be wall-to-wall convention coverage for the week on all the networks.
TERENCE SMITH: NBC Anchor Tom Brokaw maintained that his network's cable arm, MSNBC, is providing comprehensive coverage. But media critic Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, argued that the networks are still the most widely available source of news.
ALEX JONES, Shorenstein Center, Harvard University: I think for the three networks to abandon this as an important event. Now call it a news event or not -- I don't think that's really the issue. It seems to me that the major networks have an obligation, notwithstanding the news value alone, to get involved, to put it on the air, to take the time.
TERENCE SMITH: But networks executives are unapologetic. Four years from now, they say, their coverage may be reduced to the acceptance speech alone.
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