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Thursday, August 23, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.
Big Three networks shrink coverage of conventions
By Jeremy W. Peters
The New York Times
At 10:30 Monday night, Ann Romney is scheduled to take the stage at the Republican National Convention in Act 1 of her husband's four-day introduction to the nation. But tens of millions of people will not be able to watch.
CBS plans instead to show a rerun of "Hawaii Five-O," its hit police series. Viewers on NBC will see a new episode of "Grimm," about a homicide detective with the supernatural ability to sense evil. ABC plans to show "Castle," a series about a best-selling mystery novelist who helps solve crimes.
The Big Three networks, which reap considerable advertising dollars even from summer reruns, have told the Romney campaign they will broadcast an hour of convention coverage on the final three nights — but no more.
Advisers to Mitt Romney, facing a blackout of the opening-night program they fastidiously scripted to soften perceptions of the candidate, are angry.
"I don't think it's the decision that Bill Paley would have made," said Russ Schriefer, a senior Romney adviser, referring to the executive who ran CBS during the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
The campaign is considering whether to move Ann Romney's speech to another night, though it is proceeding for now with the Monday night plan.
Four years ago, the conventions were filled with the promise of high drama not seen at a big party gathering in a generation: a possible fight over Hillary Rodham Clinton's delegates, a speech by the country's first major-party black presidential nominee in front of 85,000 people and the introduction of a vice-presidential nominee who electrified her party.
By comparison, the events this year seem to lack the possibility of any electrifying moments.
Add to that the overwhelming sense that the country is in a funk and that the presidential campaign cannot seem to rise above petty insults and blatant distortions, and there is a feeling at many of the news networks that Americans would rather be hearing about something — anything — else.
In an interview last week, Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor, thought for a moment when asked if it was possible to recapture Americans' interest in the presidential election.
"I think if we could sprinkle in some Olympic events," he deadpanned. "Floor vault is a personal favorite. Badminton, but it takes up a lot of floor space."
Turning serious, he acknowledged that "people have had it up to here" with political news. "I'd love more coverage of the conventions," he said. "I also live in the real world."
ABC, CBS and NBC are scaling back televised coverage of both conventions from four years ago, when they went on the air live each night for an hour. Though there was lengthier coverage and huge ratings in 2008 — both candidates' speeches drew nearly 40 million viewers, with John McCain's getting slightly higher ratings — the trend for the networks has been to cut back and leave the gavel-to-gavel coverage to cable news.
This year, the networks will broadcast three hours of live coverage for each convention, as they did in 2004. For the Republican convention, all three networks will broadcast an hour live Tuesday through Thursday.
For the Democratic convention the week after, ABC and CBS will broadcast an hour Tuesday through Thursday.
NBC will skip Wednesday night for an NFL game and devote two hours of coverage on Thursday, when President Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden are scheduled to speak.
Political coverage this year has not always generated large audiences. In fact, it can drive viewers away, as ABC learned when it looked at the minute-by-minute ratings of "Good Morning America" and saw that people sometimes tuned out when political news was shown.
More than ever, networks are also betting that their politically minded viewers will go to the Web to get their news.
"You know, we're going to be live-streaming, so there is available live coverage minute-by-minute for everybody in this country," said ABC anchor Diane Sawyer, who will be on some of the network's online broadcasts. "When you look back historically at the kind of coverage you were saturated in before, if you add in cable and online streaming and tweeting and blogging, pound for pound do we have less?" She ventured a "no."
According to Nielsen Media Research, four years ago 99 percent of video was consumed through the television set. This year, that number has fallen to 94 percent, with 3 percent being consumed on computers and 3 percent on mobile devices. Not huge numbers, said Pat McDonough, a senior vice president at Nielsen, but figures that nonetheless show people are not less interested in the news, but are just consuming it differently. "If you're really interested in something, you're probably accessing it somewhere else," she said.
For its part, the Romney campaign is looking for other ways to amplify its message beyond network broadcasts. Romney will sit for two extended television interviews, one with Scott Pelley of CBS News, which is set to be shown in segments during the convention, and one with Chris Wallace of Fox News. Wallace's interview, for which he was given rare access to Romney at his lakefront estate in New Hampshire, will be shown Sunday.
Pelley said that during its broadcast each night, CBS plans to show its own news stories when the convention programming gets too predictable.
"We also want to cut away when it's just the scripted, sort of — and I'm searching for a better word than propaganda — but cut away when the convention isn't providing much information to the audience," he said.
Wallace said he was not anticipating anything like the electricity of the 2008 conventions.
"Will Obama's speech be the same? Probably not," he said. "And I agree that as interesting a figure and as consequential a figure as Paul Ryan is, it won't be another Palin moment."
Wallace recalled how conventions are not what they used to be. "My first convention was in 1964," he said. "I was Walter Cronkite's gopher — go for coffee, go for pencils. Those were the days of gavel-to-gavel coverage. Real business got done."
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