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'96 Convention May Be Last Aired Live by Major Networks

By Howard Kurtz
The Washington Post

The Democratic National Convention that opens Monday in Chicago may well make history as the last to be covered live by the major networks.

After openly chafing at the carefully choreographed nature of the Republicans' San Diego convention, senior network executives are bracing for a similar approach from the Democrats. They say the party, in renominating an incumbent president and vice president, is likely to produce even less news than the GOP, whose television ratings sunk to an all-time low.

"The challenge is to keep people from being bored blind," said Dan Rather, the CBS anchor. "No anchorperson or network can stop the tide of convention coverage; the audience isn't there. My concern is this may be the last time the conventions get anywhere near this kind of prime-time air time."

Jeff Gralnick, ABC's vice president for news, said the conventions must be cut from four days to two if parties hope to attract network coverage. "When you cut through it all, that's all you've got," Gralnick said. "There's no need for this kind of air time or financial and reporting effort.

"There's no real need for someone sitting at home to have to turn on the convention because they know what the convention is going to accomplish. Those of us who cover politics really get off on this basic political story, but mass America does not."

The Republicans scripted every moment in an effort to maximize their allotted hour each night on ABC, CBS and NBC, and the Democrats seem likely to follow suit.

"The Democrats say quite frankly they've learned a lot from the Republicans," said Tom Hannon, CNN's political director. "They're going through some pretty elaborate staging to bring President Clinton into the hall."

Some network officials say the Democrats, to enhance Clinton's re-election prospects, will probably be as successful as the GOP in using television to project a moderate image.

"You can make a case that what the networks did was run up a white one, which is to say surrender," Rather said. "We ran most of the important things the Republicans wanted run, and without a lot of background or analysis." Rather said the Chicago convention is likely to be "worse," adding: "Both Democrats and Republicans are pressuring us to carry all of their stuff.