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Broadcast Networks Draw Fire, Fewer Viewers for Conventions

BY Elizabeth Harper  September 7, 2004 at 7:26 PM EDT

Unlike Fox and other cable channels, the “big three” networks offered one hour each of live coverage of both the Democratic National Convention and RNC and covered three out of the four nights of each convention.

For the first time ever, Fox boasted a larger audience than any broadcast networks, with 5.2 million viewers between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., versus NBC’s 5.1 million, CBS’s 4.4 million and ABC’s 4.3 million. PBS, which broadcasts the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, averaged about 2 million, while MSNBC followed with 1.6 million and CNN brought up the rear with 1.5 million.

Fox’s explosion of viewers was largely attributed to its audience primarily consisting of Republicans, according to the Columbia Journalism Review and the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, downplayed the significance of Fox’s success during the GOP convention because of its viewers’ partisan preference.

Nevertheless, the networks’ low audience numbers have prompted media critics and news executives to examine the networks’ convention coverage in terms of quantity and quality.

Outgoing NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, for one, lamented the tightly controlled, stage-managed nature of the conventions. In an interview with the New York Times’ Bill Carter, Brokaw described the events as “managed down to the last semicolon.”

CBS News anchor Dan Rather also told the Times that the networks were less interested in the conventions partly because of both parties’ tight control over the events, making journalists feel more like a sports producer at a prepackaged event who does nothing more than show up and turn on the camera.

Dorrance Smith, a Republican convention planner and former ABC News executive, said the networks were to blame for their dwindling viewership and called Fox’s triumph during the GOP convention “truly a seminal event.”

“The way that we and the Democrats have programmed the 10 p.m. hour has reduced [the networks'] impact dramatically,” Smith said in the New York Times article. “By limiting their coverage, [the networks] are forced to show what the conventions have programmed, and it has reduced to bare minimum their ability to react and opine.”

Media critics, such as Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk, have taken the networks to task for providing little more than “he said-she said” journalism, sound bites of candidates without independently vetting the accuracy of their statements and for focusing on the “horse race” rather than political issues of the 2004 election.

Bryan Keefer, assistant managing editor for Campaign Desk, told the Online NewsHour that news anchors, including Brokaw, realize that the political campaigns are handling the media so well by constantly delivering a large quantity of information to news organizations.

“It’s a combination of the spin, the speed and the volume” that makes it difficult for journalists to verify claims and provide more than sound bites in the first news cycle, Keefer said.

Keefer observed that the networks barely had time to broadcast the high-profile convention speeches, much less grill the speakers directly about their claims.

During Wednesday night coverage of the GOP convention, ABC, NBC and CBS “had only a few minutes to give viewers a little context between the end of [Vice President Dick] Cheney’s speech and the start of their regularly scheduled programming,” Campaign Desk wrote on its Web site. “None of the networks pointed out the misrepresentations in the speeches. “

On the other hand, Keefer noted, viewers could turn to cable, for instance, to watch CNN vigorously dissect Sen. Zell Miller’s speech, in which the Georgia Democrat lambasted Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.

CJR’s Campaign Desk, including Keefer, has cautioned that broadcast networks could expect more viewers to migrate to cable if the big three do not begin providing the type of coverage viewers want — and were finding on cable news channels. Keefer added that more people were also turning to nontraditional sources of news, such as Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Web logs (blogs), for analysis of what matters to them.

Ideally, networks should devote some time for analysis and go beyond the talking points even if for only five minutes, Keefer said.

Despite such criticism and tough reflection, many news executives remained confident in their political coverage, saying Fox’s victory during the GOP convention was unsurprising.

Sandy Genelius of CBS News said the conventions were basically “infomercials” for the political parties. Looking back at the GOP convention, CBS News’ “coverage was appropriate for the event” and it would not change anything about its coverage, Genelius told the Online NewsHour.

While the conventions may not warrant extended coverage by CBS Nightly News, Genelius noted that the network’s other programs and its Web site provided additional news and information on the events and campaign in general.

Genelius also dismissed the idea the broadcast networks lacked analysis, pointing to CBS’s policy pieces, in which candidates’ positions on issues are compared and examined on an individual level.

ABC News’ Julie Summersgill echoed those statements, saying that ABC News was pleased with its convention coverage and would continue to provide excellent political news reporting.

Summersgill also highlighted ABC’s digital service, ABC News Now, for news and information around the clock, noting that ABC News Now was able to supplement the network’s limited convention coverage with its gavel-to-gavel reporting.

NBC was unavailable to comment by deadline.