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Coverage of parties' parties will be unconventional

Wednesday, July 07, 1999

By Rob Owen, Adrian McCoy and wire reports

What if they had a political convention and nobody watched?

Well, not exactly nobody. But far fewer Americans watch conventions on the Big 3 networks than in pre-cable days, when ABC, CBS and NBC held viewers captive with wall-to-wall coverage in prime time.

Viewers are captive no more. As anyone with a remote knows, the Big 3 has become the Big 300.

With all those choices, no wonder solid citizens have been tuning out the political snooze-athons in droves.

Competing for viewers with the attention span of gnats has become an increasingly expensive -- and losing -- proposition for the broadcast networks. They've conceded gavel-to-gavel coverage to cable and the Internet.

"Do networks care as much as we used to? Of course we don't," says ABC's Peter Jennings, 60, whose first convention was in 1964. "We care less because they [Republicans and Democrats] care less. Their conventions have become coronations and pep rallies.

"As invested as we are in covering them as an exercise in democracy, we've had to cut back because they have so little news value. The parties have done all their political business beforehand."

To wit: In 1996, "Nightline's" Ted Koppel, a convention veteran since '64, ditched the Republicans in San Diego after two nights and skipped the Democrats altogether.

Though ABC, CBS and NBC haven't finalized their 2000 plans, officials at all three networks told the Philadelphia Inquirer that it's possible they may drop a full night of the GOP's and Democrats' planned four-night events.

Here's why.

Combined Big 3 prime-time viewership of the four-night Republican convention in '96 averaged 11.8 million homes per night, down 27 percent from 1988's average of 16.2 million homes, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The Democrats averaged 13.2 million homes per night in '96, a 24 percent decrease from 17.4 million in 1988.

In fairness, it should be noted that CNN and PBS got into the act beginning in '92, adding several million viewers to the mix. Next year, cable's MSNBC, Fox News Channel, CNN and C-Span all will offer live gavel-to-gavel coverage, with PBS contributing "extensive" prime-time reportage.

Given that each broadcast network spends $4 million to $5 million to cover each convention, they're watching their pennies. Any way you cut it, it's not your mother's convention coverage anymore.

"You'd have to live on Mars to not realize the economic realities have changed," says Marc Burstein, ABC News' executive producer of special events and director of election coverage. "We have to do things differently."

Should anything newsworthy or unexpected occur, the checkbook will open, says Burstein. But at the moment, "We're reviewing everything. Nothing's off the table, but nothing's on it, either."

With MSNBC as its 24-hour security blanket, NBC can afford to devote fewer minutes to the 2000 conventions, says NBC News vice president Bill Wheatley. Unlike in '96 and '92, it will not be partnering with PBS.

According to Wheatley, the conventions' single most important role is "permitting the nominee to talk to the American people and lay out his plans to the country."

The rest, in NBC anchor Tom Brokaw's words, is "a kabuki dance." (CBS's Dan Rather once called conventions "infomercial telethons.")

No matter how long or boring these conventions may be, don't expect the Big 3 to abandon them altogether.

"They're still a wonderful opportunity for a network to showcase its political team and its commitment to political coverage," says Wheatley. "We're not ready to write them off completely."

TCI CHANGES: Cable customers who subscribe to TCI in Braddock Hills, Chalfont, Edgewood, Penn Hills and Wikinsburg may have noticed some changes to a few of their channels.

MSNBC has been added at Channel 65, TV Land moved to Channel 71, HGTV migrated to Channel 64, HBO moved to Channel 66, Starz hopped to Channel 67, Cinemax moved to Channel 68, Showtime got bumped to Channel 69, and Encore moved to Channel 70.

In addition, Playboy can now be seen on Channel 853. Multiple feeds of Encore, HBO, Starz, Cinemax and Showtime also were added. Customers will receive a new lineup card in the mail soon if they haven't gotten it already.

HARVEY IS BACK: Syndicated Paul Harvey is back on the local airwaves. Talk station WPTT-AM (1360) has picked up Harvey's daily commentary segments, which got lost in the shuffle when former carrier WEAE-AM switched to all-sports.

Harvey's "Morning News and Commentary" will air at 8:30 a.m., "Noon News and Commentary" at 12:06 p.m. and "The Rest of the Story" at 4:30 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays. On Saturdays, "The Rest of the Story" is on at 8:30 a.m. and "Noon News and Commentary" at 12:10 p.m.

CASTING CALL: Aida Turturro, cousin of actors John and Nick Turturro, has joined the cast of HBO's "The Sopranos," playing the older sister of stressed-out New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano.

It's unclear how Turturro's character, Janice, will be introduced into the drama, which begins its second season in January. There was talk that the story line will find the eldest Soprano daughter returning to the East Coast after some years in California.

The only reference to the older sister in the first 13-episode "Sopranos" season came in the flashback episode "Down Neck," which revealed that Tony had a younger and an older sister. Turturro will be seen on the big screen this summer in Warner Bros.' "Deep Blue Sea" and in Martin Scorsese's fall release, "Bringing Out the Dead."

CHANNEL SURFING: UPN, the struggling network whose one bright spot last season was a professional wrestling special, has ordered a series that will showcase over-the-top stunts performed by assorted international daredevils. Tentatively titled "I Dare You!," the series is earmarked for a midseason slot. ... Although the fall TV season officially begins Sept. 20, the Fox network plans to push back the premiere dates of most of its new shows until mid-October or later. ... The USA Network has snapped up "American History X." Despite harvesting reams of publicity for its focus on the violence and bigotry of neo-Nazi skinheads, "American History X" earned just $6.6 million at the domestic box office. Its star, Edward Norton, received an Oscar nomination. ... Add Barbara Hershey to the list of new faces checking into "Chicago Hope" next season. Hershey joins Lauren Holly and Carla Gugino as newcomers recruited by creator David E. Kelley to breathe new life into the much-praised CBS medical drama.

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