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Major TV coverage for a major election

By Tim Goodman
San Francisco Chronicle
You have to forgive political reporters, anchors and pundits as they start to obsess about the Democratic and Republican conventions, which are roughly a month away. If their heads don’t blow off, they’ll then be able to ponder the actual presidential election beyond the conventions, and that should cause some kind of dangerous electrical arc.
Don’t sit too close to your TV set.
Of course, this is their Super Bowl of hype ó or concentrated political journalism, if you prefer. They are as excited and geeked out on the candidates and issues as any football announcers or pre-game studio analysts. But there are still some relevant questions that might pop the political wonk balloon:
For starters, is the nation as excited as, say, Wolf Blitzer, who could go off like a bottle rocket at any moment? Do broadcast networks think too little of the conventions, and do time-filling 24-hour cable channels think too much of them? For all the talk about dissecting substantive issues, will the coronations of Barack Obama and John McCain reveal anything new ó or will Fox News and CNN and MSNBC merely dip in the shallow end as these carefully choreographed cheerleading rallies play in the background? And will the election itself be treated ó as usual ó like a horse race?
Speaking of horses, here’s a dark one: Will the country be tired of watching TV nonstop after the Summer Olympics in Beijing? Don’t scoff. There could be more politics in Beijing than in Denver and Minnesota combined. Opening Ceremonies are Aug. 8, and the Closing Ceremonies are Aug. 24, one day before the Democrats take over Denver.
You could argue that a light sitcom or two might fit in nicely between those events, as a kind of palate cleanser. Then again, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” with Stephen Colbert ought to take care of that. Or David Letterman and Jay Leno.
But won’t they just be adding to convention fatigue? Probably.
There’s no turning back now, however. And good luck turning the channel to something else ó it seems everybody has big plans for both parties. A variety of network and cable news teams talked up their plans as they met the nation’s television critics earlier this month. Here’s a smattering of their schemes:
ó CNN’s Blitzer on the notion of letting the conventions play out like political ads: “Remember, in both of these cities ó in Denver and later in St. Paul ó all the major leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties, all the people who are knowledgeable about what’s going on, are going to be there, and it’s an opportunity for all of us as reporters to have access to people who have a good sense of what’s going on, and we can pick their brains and hopefully do some serious reporting in the process. But as you know, we’re not going to simply be stenographers and just allow the coverage, all the speeches, to go on without any interruption. When there’s something interesting happening, when somebody interesting is speaking, we’ll take that live, but we’re not going to go overboard.”
ó It was Blitzer, however, who said the intrigue about who will introduce Hillary Rodham Clinton ó and when ó will be “fascinating.”
“Is she introduced by Chelsea Clinton, for example? When, if at all, does the former President Bill Clinton speak? Does he speak on a different night than Hillary Clinton? All this setting the stage for Barack Obama’s acceptance speech that Thursday night. So there’s going to be a drama throughout this process that I think will be compelling, not only to political news junkies out there but to a lot of folks who are beginning to tune in.”
ó TV One, a cable channel “designed to celebrate African-American achievement,” will cover the Democratic convention gavel to gavel, mostly as a celebration of Obama’s nomination. The channel dismissed suggestions that there was a fairness issue in not covering the Republican convention. “If Hillary was a nominee, we would not be covering this year’s Democratic convention,” said Johnathan Rodgers, president and CEO of TV One. But what about African-American Republicans, was the counter ó shouldn’t they feel slighted? “I speak for all eight of us ó we are not slighted,” said comedian ó and “Bush Republican” ó Sheryl Underwood.
ó BBC World News America announced that Ted Koppel would be joining its team in covering the conventions and election. “In 1996, I walked out of the Republican convention in San Diego, pointing out that it was really nothing much more than a picture show and there wasn’t any news happening,” said Koppel. “I don’t think anyone can make that observation about this year.
“This has been one of the most remarkable political years we’ve ever seen. And even though we know who the candidates are going to be, I still think there will be news coming out of both the Democratic and Republican conventions.”
ó Chris Wallace of Fox News on the notion that the Republican convention won’t be as “sexy” as the Democratic convention, in a journalistic sense: “At this point, despite all the talk and hype about Obama, the fact is if you believe the polls, it’s basically a dead heat. I don’t think we’ve had a more dramatic election in recent years in terms of the difference on issues, whether it’s foreign policy or taxes or energy or the kinds of judges they’d appoint to the Supreme Court. I don’t think you need any hype. I think this is a great election. It’s going to be a great, substantive convention, and I don’t think we’re going to have any problem getting people to want to watch it.”
ó Jeff Greenfield of CBS News on where the drama could come from on both sides: “There’s one thing about both of these conventions that we all ought to keep an eye on. And that is in both conventions, I would guess roughly half the delegates wanted somebody else. These weren’t wrapped up that early. You know, half the Republicans are still saying they’d like somebody else. There are going to be almost as many Clinton delegates there as Obama delegates. That doesn’t mean there’s going to be breathtaking drama. But it does mean that you’ve got to keep an eye on whether or not those delegates express unhappiness or lack of enthusiasm.
“I think that’s one reason why Obama moved his speech, by the way, into Invesco Field.”
ó Keith Olbermann of MSNBC was asked if Fox News was missing a ratings opportunity by not having Bill O’Reilly anchor the convention coverage. “How many ways can I get myself into trouble by answering this question?” he said. “Well … it would make it more interesting if Bill was on and did it live. Let’s just leave it there.”
ó ABC News was not represented.
The assumption is that, barring a political version of “Dancing With the Stars” ó which would probably crush Obama and McCain’s combined numbers ó the network still plans on covering the conventions. Surprisingly enough, it apparently didn’t want to talk about those plans.
(E-mail Tim Goodman at tgoodman(at)sfchronicle.com.)

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