September 3, 2004


Faced With Poor Ratings, Networks Soul Search (BILL CARTER, 9/03/04, NY Times)

Dorrance Smith, the longtime former ABC News executive who is now a television consultant to the Republican National Convention, called Fox's dominance in the ratings this week "truly a seminal event," and said that that development could be interpreted as a serious threat to the identities of the broadcast news operations.

"It never ceases to amaze me how the networks can continue to rationalize their ongoing decline in both numbers and relevancy," Mr. Smith said. "The way that we and the Democrats have programmed the 10 p.m. hour has reduced their impact dramatically. By limiting their coverage, they are forced to show what the conventions have programmed, and it has reduced to a bare minimum their ability to react and opine."

Dan Rather, the CBS anchor, said that precisely that kind of stage managing had helped reduce the networks' interest in the conventions. His team, he said, was left to act less like journalists than like sports producers who show up at a prepackaged event and turn on their cameras.

"Actually, in sports you can do more," Mr. Rather said. "You can say the fullback missed a block. Here we don't even get to do that."

After beating the broadcast networks for the first time on Tuesday, Fox News dominated viewership from 10 to 11 p.m. on Wednesday, when Vice President Dick Cheney gave his acceptance speech. Fox not only pulled in more viewers than any individual broadcast network, with 5.918 million, but also attracted more viewers than CBS (2.6 million) and ABC (3.3 million) combined. NBC had 4.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

While many network news executives dismissed Fox's success as a function of its warmth toward the Republicans, many admitted that the size of the audience differential on Wednesday was startling.

"Any time you see a number of that magnitude you have to think about it," Neal Shapiro, the president of NBC News, said.

There are so many things here you can pick apart it's hard to know where to start, but as an overall point it's ridiculous for the Networks to complain about changes to the conventions that their own half-assed coverage caused. Their broadcast licenses should require gavel to gavel coverage for four days.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 3, 2004 8:06 PM

The Libertarians would be eternally grateful to you if you would aggressively promote the "gavel-to-gavel" idea. I know -- I was one. (Got to change my registration one of these days.)

Posted by: Guy T. at September 3, 2004 8:13 PM


From a practical point the nation would be better served if the networks took a vacation during the Republican convention. Their endless commentary (spin) confuses more people than it helps. C-SPAN is the ticket; just video and audio not comment. The downside is that not all households have access to C-SPAN.

Posted by: Pilgrim at September 3, 2004 9:23 PM


Not all houses have access to C-SPAN? That's deuced odd, given that C-SPAN was one of the channels on the first (rather primitive, the only pay channel available was HBO) cable system that my family had back in the late 1970's. I always thought C-SPAN was part of the bedrock basic package of any cable system.

Posted by: Joe at September 3, 2004 9:39 PM

Broadcast networks tell convention planners that they will cover only two hours per night. Convention planners squeeze their preferred speakers into that alloted time. Networks are bored, tell convention planners that one hour will be granted. Convention planners further squeeze speakers into that hour. Chicken, meet egg; egg, meet chicken.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at September 3, 2004 10:24 PM

The Alphabet Networks problem is not their timing, but the substance of their coverage. Even the dullest tool knows that they are Democrat spin machines.

Watch Zell Miller and then Peter Jennings and the contrast is likely to cause a concusion. There is only so much most of us can stand. Fox and C-Span are the only reasonable alternatives.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 3, 2004 11:10 PM

Joe, C-SPAN might be in every cable system, but some of us (me!) do not have cable or satellite. I have regular broadcast TV only, by choice.

Posted by: Kay at September 3, 2004 11:14 PM

We don't get CSpan either.

Having only one hour of coverage per night worked brilliantly for the Republicans, who planned out the entire convention as a miniseries. The progression of speakers, the themes of their talks and the ebb and flow of the convention were all designed to build to the President's address. The convention could never have been as successful with gavel to gavel coverage.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 4, 2004 12:51 AM

Joe, C-SPAN was available to all cable systems from 1979 on, but in the days when many of the systems had a capacity of only 12 to 21 channels, it would either not be part of the package or would end up sharing time with some other entertainment channel that would air during the evenings, whil;e C-SPAN ran from about 5 a.m. to 6 p.m.

As for the network news folks, they'd prefer remaining true to their ideologies than to pander in their eyes to the Fox News crowd for higher ratings. And as long as the top executives in the companies share their ideology, there won't be any pressure to alter that system in the future. But don't look for any change in the convention coverage in 2008 -- the big three and CNN won't pass up a chance to have a Hillary Clinton love fest at the Democratic gathering, even if it means having to endure four days of those scripted Republicans again.

Posted by: John at September 4, 2004 12:59 AM

The BBC Parliament channel used C-Span's coverage to cover the convention. I was really impressed with it. Very little editorialising and what was more welcome was the personal interest shown in all the regular folk who turned up for the convention, asking them what they did in their civilian lives etc. I wish I could watch it here regularly.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at September 4, 2004 9:51 AM

"His team, he said, was left to act less like journalists than like sports producers who show up at a prepackaged event and turn on their cameras."

Excuse me, but isn't this how the networks report every terrorist attack?

Posted by: Chris Durnell at September 4, 2004 6:36 PM

Your ultimate video on demand solutions

Posted by: at September 14, 2004 11:02 AM


Posted by: at September 18, 2004 9:15 PM