Last night, I watched the one-hour “super-prime-time” segment of Democratic National Convention proceedings on CNN while my wife watched on alternating broadcast networks. We quickly noticed that the broadcast folk were cutting away from the official DNC “feed” for commercial breaks and their own pundit jabbering while CNN generally just let the feed run. Turns out this disparity was the product of real debate at high levels, as Jon Allsop explains at Columbia Journalism Review:
While CNN and MSNBC broadcast the full two hours and mostly refrained from cutting in, Fox News and the major broadcast networks showed only the second hour, and talked over portions of it … After Kasich spoke, convention producers introduced longtime Republican voters who intend to break with Trump; rather than show their testimonials, CBS and ABC cut away, respectively, to the Trump allies Reince Priebus and Chris Christie, both of whom bashed Kasich. (“He’s a backstabber,” Christie said. “Biden’s gonna be getting calls from John Kasich, he’s gonna wanna change his phone number.”) Network anchors and pundits speculated as to what speakers might say just moments before the speakers appeared. While these interludes were going on, the convention feed continued to roll, on mute, in one corner of the screen — a hellish distraction that alternately had the air of an ad and a hostage video. At one point, NBC’s Garrett Haake recapped his conversations with voters in Milwaukee while unrelated voters opined, silently, to his right.
Now there’s nothing unprecedented about TV networks picking and choosing the convention content they will show and talking over the rest. In the days of “gavel-to-gavel coverage,” however, there was plenty of disposable content ranging from boring convention business, like committee reports, to the long series of three-minute afternoon speeches by congressional candidates using nearly identical words dictated by convention managers. Once you have already cut coverage all the way down to one hour, is it too much to ask that you wait a few minutes before dragging out Reince Priebus to attack an earlier speaker? Apparently, according to Allsop, it was a matter of principle:
The rat-a-tat rhythm of the Democrats’ virtual production did not contain natural break points for punditry. The alternative — letting things play out uninterrupted — was much smoother, but also meant handing primetime air to programming that, no matter how substantive it was, was ultimately an unfiltered infomercial for a political party.
Unfortunately, the convention really was an “infomercial for a political party,” and I would argue that’s what party conventions have been trending toward from the moment in the early 1970s when they began to lose their deliberative function. Pretending you can cover a one-hour production as a news event with some essential content and some filler you can displace with studio jabber shows how absurd such distinctions have become. Would networks cover a State of the Union address (often as long as these one-hour convention sessions) this way, cutting away from the podium so that this or that “commentator” or “strategist” can dissect a particular passage in real time? I don’t think so. Allsop is right:
Ahead of the three remaining nights of the Democratic convention and the Republican effort next week, the networks should make a choice and stick with it. If they think that voters should get to hear each party’s best case from the party’s own mouth, they should air the convention programming without punditry. If they find that to be unacceptable, they should just air the news or something else.
An hour without punditry might even improve ratings.