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September 2, 2004

"Turn to Fox News for Exclusive Coverage of the Republican National Convention."

By 2008 we may see something different emerge: The Republican and Democratic parties negotiate deals with a single network to carry exclusive coverage of the event-- like the Academy Awards, or the Olympics.

Madison Square Garden, Sep. 2. First, there’s the news that Fox beat all networks—not just its cable competitors—in the ratings race at the Republican convention.

Then there’s this story, from the newspaper The Hill:

The love-in between Republican delegates and Fox News Channel continued on Tuesday night, as a group of delegates seated directly facing CNN’s broadcast booth began taunting the CNN cast and crew.

“Watch Fox News” chanted the delegates and other convention-goers in Section 223, likely broadcasting the message to millions of homes tuned in to CNN

Then there’s the item I reported earlier this week: the deal CNN negotiated with the Democratic Party for a special broadcast platform on the arena floor. No other network had it.

Then there’s the decision by the major broadcast networks to devote only three hours over four nights to both conventions, due to declining news value and flagging interest. David Westin, president of ABC News, wrote about it:

If we broadcast extended convention coverage when most Americans would rather be watching something else, our audiences will flock to the alternative programming. If the conventions themselves were as interesting as they were in 1948 or 1956 — or even 1968 — then we wouldn’t have this problem. But as we all know too well, they aren’t. As much as we might like to coerce people into watching what we think to be good for them, we simply don’t have that power.

Then there’s the long but now complete transformation of the conventions into news-less message festivals, which are also entertainment events.

All of which leads me to think that by 2008 we may see something different emerge: The Republican and Democratic parties negotiate deals with a single network to carry exclusive live coverage of the event— as with the Academy Awards, or the Olympics.

Obviously it makes the most sense for the Republicans to sell their convention to Fox exclusively, and for the Democrats to go with CNN, which led the ratings among cable channels for the Democratic convention in Boston, or possibly MSNBC.

I’m not promoting the idea, and don’t favor it myself. I’m saying things may go that way.

Why not? The ratings would be far higher for a single network. Promotion would be simpler. Cooperation between the party and the network carrier would suddenly be “okay,” since both would want to put on the best event possible. The suits at ABC, NBC and CBS would not to have to answer questions about the meager hours they plan to broadcast the thing. And the party bosses would like dealing with a single partner, I think.

The arguments against it? “This is a news event and all broadcasters should have the right to cover it.” But the answer to that is simple: anyone can cover the convention. Only one network has the right to televise it. This is the arrangement at the Olympics and the Academy Awards— thousands of journalists cover the event, but only one company has the right to broadcast it to Americans. The other argument against is harder to counter. Not all Americans have cable; the ones who don’t will be deprived of the convention.

But not all Americans live in swing states either. Most don’t. And they’re deprived of the campaign ads that are far more critical to the outcome than the conventions. But somehow we tolerate that and the system goes on.

In Boston, the word among insiders was: this is the last year of the four-night convention. Next time, 2008, the parties will slim down to three nights— and the standard will be one hour of live coverage a night from the broadcast networks. Maybe that will happen.

But I think there are more radical changes afoot. The very premise of a “news event” is so strained it may just collapse. By 2008, the conventions could be very different creatures because at bottom almost no one believes in the ritual as it stands.

“Turn to Fox News for Exclusive Coverage of the Republican National Convention.” Now doesn’t that make more sense?

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Media Drop hates the idea: “My response: Why would they do such a thing— and who does it benefit, other than the ‘exclusive’ network?” More:

Placing FOX with the Republicans and CNN with the Democrats is on one hand kind of funny, and another hand kind of unfortunate. For one, you’ll have much more accusation of bias in the coverage of the events. People will be claiming “home” coverage left and right, as the “between speech” commentary would only be coming from one station.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 2, 2004 9:52 PM