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August 24, 2004

Late For the Sky: My New Convention Blog

I have a new convention blog. It's called Sky Box. During the Republican National Convention, I will be a contributing writer for Knight-Ridder's Washington bureau, credentialed to cover the event for them, working out of their space. Here, some reflections on the network sky box and the iconography of conventions.

Sky Box will be my temporary forum, but I will cross post most stuff to PressThink and may do posts for PressThink that aren’t for Sky Box. There’s a team of Knight-Ridder journalists who are continuing a weblog experiment they began last month in Boston. I’m joining them. Soon we’ll have a special page where you can find all the K-R people who are blogging the RNC, and I will link to it.

I decided to call the blog Sky Box because I see the network sky boxes with their blazing logos—NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, PBS—as part of the iconography of a political convention. A key part.

But “reading” what this image says has gotten harder and harder, as the big broadcast networks have shrunk their coverage to three hours, while the cable channels go end-to-end, and yet talk over the event for most of their time on air. What happens inside the sky boxes, where producers make TV of the convention, is still important. And for Americans who are viewers of political television, the vantage point of the sky box is totally familiar.

Yet we might never think about it as a “position” of its own.

We’re used to watching Brit Hume of Fox or Judy Woodruff of CNN talk to us about politics, while behind them is a window on the convention hall itself— a frame. The sensation is of inhabiting a scenic overlook. Intellectually, it’s a position that promotes analysis, a step back, the broad overview, the look beyond. Televisually, it’s a command post for the correspondents who fan out below you. Psychologically, it’s about the power of being “above” the action—above politics—with that commanding view. Who owns these boxes when the convention leaves town? Big shots!

So the sky box is supposed to say Big Media and all the glamour of Big Media is supposed to come through the frame. When you’re out on the floor of the convention, and your eye scans the arena, the TV sky boxes hover overhead. ABC News. CNN. MSNBC. Fox. These bright brand names in news form an interpretive ring around the action.

You can sometimes look up and see the silhouette of a known newscaster, and you realize they’re on the air in that box, reporting on the convention by ignoring what’s happening at it now, where you are—near the podium, on “the floor.” And it’s at these moments that a reporter might ask himself: where does a political convention actually “happen,” most of the time? If I want to get closer to it, where do I go?

One answer is: go to the sky boxes where the hook up with the big audience is being made. There you join the Mississippi of attention streams— the TV audience. Go there to find the convention being shaped into an event.

In 2004, the view from the Network boxes doesn’t have the significance it once did. During the era when conventions were re-made into television-friendly events, a lot of political power was “pulled” upward. It got deposited in the hands of a relative few: network producers and the people they put on the air— the anchormen, their correspondents, hired experts and guests.

Now a lot of that power is being re-distributed downward as the conventions change into party “message-fests” that go out to Americans through many different devices, which is why 12,000 to 15,000 media people show up.

The best symbol of this shift was the big surprise CNN sprung on its competitors at the Democratic National Convention in Boston: a small broadcasting platform (a studio, in effect) right on the floor of the Fleet Center. In a sense this meant abandoning the pretense of the sky box: that its cosmic “overview” was the right view. The news is brought down to earth, put into the mix, in the shift from one set to another— sky box to floor. (Of course, the network used both locations in Boston, and drew on both ideas.)

The sky boxes still matter, they’re still icons, but underneath them and all around the hall, other ways of connecting Americans to the convention are showing up. This blog is one. I told you why I’m calling it Sky Box. But I haven’t told you what I plan to do, as the RNC approaches and the atmosphere in New York (which is also my home) heats up.

Sky Box, an image of the conventions as media event, which is also a fading image, is just the name of the album. The songs are to come.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

Here’s one of the Knight-Ridder bloggers: Life of the Parties, Looking at the election through twentysomething eyes by Adam Smeltz.

CyberJournalist.Net has a list of who’s blogging the Republic convention. Help them out by sending in names of blogs that should be added.

CyberJournalist.Net had this overview of Knight-Ridder’s convention blogging from Boston. I was not involved in that. But I was a credentialled blogger in Boston:

PressThink’s Reporting From the Convention

Go here for my first report, on the conventions pointing backwards in political time, here for the second, an interview with the event’s “CEO,” and here for a third, which includes an audio interview with Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post, and the fourth, arguing that Al Queda also came to the convention.

In Boston, I also wrote a quick viewer’s guide for the Kerry speech, but that I could have done from home. Still, it was part of PressThink’s convention coverage because it was part of blogging an event live, which means writing into or “at” people’s experience of the event as it unfolds.

Also… CyberJournalist.Net covers my Sky Box announcement.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 24, 2004 4:53 PM