Good old convention days long in the past

Published 10:47 am Friday, August 24, 2012

My friends and I grew up with four television channels. On dull summer days we laboriously clicked through every stop on the dial, hoping for something new. Anything, we thought, would be better than soap operas or helping our moms garden.

So we were quick to notice when there was something of interest on the tube. Anything related to moon landings we watched avidly. We even tried to watch the Watergate hearings, but concluded soap operas were better.

It wasn’t much different in the evenings, when our parents reclaimed control of the televisions. Unless we wanted to see reruns of programs we disliked even when new, there was no television for us.

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So when the presidential party conventions took place, it was a big deal, a chance to see something that even children could tell was exciting and historic. We watched McGovern get nominated in 1972 at a dramatic convention that ran late into the night every night. Then it was Carter and Ford in 1976. We watched for a glimpse of our state delegation, in case we might recognize someone. With our parents we listened to Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather explain what was happening.

It is a good thing that the conventions were interesting, because the major networks covered them seemingly non-stop.

How things have changed.

This year, the major broadcast networks have said they will limit their coverage of the first of the conventions, the Republicans, to an hour a night, skipping Monday’s opening events completely. Similar plans are in place for the Democrats’ convention.

Even for news divisions which are more about entertainment than news this is probably a good decision. The reality is that neither the RNC or DNC will be news. And except for those who are partisan fanatics, they will not even be entertaining.

Republican convention organizers have been quite open about their plans to use the event and their hoped-for national audience, to enhance Mitt Romney’s reputation with voters. It’s not about choosing a candidate – that decisions was effectively made many months ago. It’s about selling him to the voters.

This is nothing new, of course. Barring years like 2008 when there was actual drama, recent conventions have been little but multi-hour political commercials. So it is perhaps no surprise that network executives — warriors in a brutal, endless ratings battle — think that “Hawaii Five-O” and similar fare will have more audience appeal than politics.

There’s more to that decision than network profits, however. This year’s presidential campaign is one of the most discouraging ever. For months Romney and President Obama, directly and through a variety of affiliate organizations, have been throwing insults and accusations. Neither has inspired confidence that he can govern and many Americans have no doubt already tuned out the entire battle.

It’s hard to figure out how much Americans care about a presidential race, because August and September disinterest could still translate into big turnout in November. But one indicator locally might be a Herald poll in which we asked our on-line audience to indicate which candidate they favor as of this week. The poll (results will be in Sunday’s Herald) got about half as many responses as most of the polls we run.

So no criticism of the networks’ programming decisions here. If my job depended on putting the right programs on the air, I’d probably rather show an NFL game (as one network plans to do during the DNC) than a political commercial.

Today’s kids will have to find another antidote to summer evening boredom. Of course, they have a lot more than four channels to choose from.