NEW YORK — On the surface, television networks will cover the upcoming Republican and Democratic national conventions much like they have the past few election cycles — generally an hour each night on the big broadcasters, more or less full time with the cable news networks.
Below the surface, things are dramatically different.
The Internet will give people more access to convention halls and a greater opportunity to become part of the political conversation. The popularity of social media and people experiencing big events on TV with tablets and smartphones has driven up TV ratings, most dramatically and recently for the Olympics, and television executives are curious to see if the trend continues in Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C.
"It is possible that social media and the discourse we can see there can help transform the conventions into something more dynamic again, something that involves the public," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News Channel, PBS and C-SPAN are live streaming the convention online pretty much from start to finish, besides what is being offered on television. ABC News' online feed will mimic a television newscast for three hours prior to the network coming on the air. Bloomberg will stream economy-focused panel discussions that it holds with convention figures. PBS is stationing live webcams at the convention halls and surrounding areas. NBC News will host "hangouts" with some of its correspondents on Google Plus. C-SPAN's TV and online coverage is commentary-free.
The activity reverses a decades-long trend of television networks compressing coverage on the theory that the conventions have become stage-managed events largely free of news.
Yet they are important to candidates, offering the best filter-free way to reach the public along with the presidential debates. For three nights over two weeks in 2008, more than 40 million people watched convention speeches by candidates Barack Obama, John McCain and Sarah Palin on television.
Twitter and Facebook were barely a speck on the horizon in 2008. Their growing influence speaks directly to the reasons people follow big events: Asked by Pew two years ago why they keep up with the news, the largest percentage of Americans — 72 percent — said it was because they enjoy talking with friends and family about what is going on.
"Social media adds a new layer to this gigantic nonevent," said Jeff Jarvis, a media critic who writes the Buzzmachine.com blog. "It's becoming fascinating. We could all be there. We don't all want to be there but we can talk about it, and that can be more newsworthy than the actual event."
The Olympics were NBC's eye-opener to the power of social media. Others have their own stories. When Mitt Romney proposed a $10,000 bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry in a December debate, it was barely noticed at the debate hall, but exploded on Twitter and influenced ABC's decision to emphasize it in debate sum-up, said Marc Burstein, senior executive producer at ABC News in charge of convention coverage.
The challenge for networks comes in harnessing social media for effective use in their coverage.
"I can't say anybody has found the secret sauce yet but there's a lot of great experimenting going on," said Mark Lukasiewicz, producer in charge of NBC's convention coverage. "One of the fantastic things about this is you do get real-time feedback about what you do on the air."
NBC is trying several different approaches, including flashing Twitter messages at the bottom of its TV screen, setting up several hashtags to gather tweets and give both viewers and correspondents a destination to share thoughts, streaming speeches on Facebook and hiring a company to measure the sentiment of online commentary.
ABC, by contrast, is keeping its social media plans quiet in advance.
"You'd be a fool to ignore social media," Burstein said, "and we don't plan to do so."
Current TV is trying a bold new approach, devoting half of its screen to a real-time Twitter feed divided into dozens of categories. Viewers can see what mainstream media figures are tweeting, what politicos attached to Obama or Romney are saying, and even voters in key swing states. The tweets will take up more screen space than pictures from the convention or commentators like Al Gore.
On TV, Current producers choose the Twitter feeds that run on the air. Online, viewers can choose what feeds to follow.
"There's a swirl of conversation going on right now in the country, and TV has never found a way to tap into it," said David Bohrman, who runs Current.
The different online approaches also speak to the spirit of experimentation. NBC is offering an unadorned gavel-to-gavel feed because it is also providing a network summary (except for Wednesday, Sept. 5, when it is pre-empted by a football game) and full nights of coverage anchored by the left-leaning anchor team on MSNBC. CBS is preparing online specials for both directly before and after its television coverage, the latter anchored by Scott Pelley. PBS will have presidential historians on hand for analysis of convention speeches.
The online specials allow CBS a chance to reach an audience that doesn't normally follow the network regularly, said Susan Zirinsky, who is producing the network's coverage.Comment on this story
"It affords us an opportunity on exciting new platforms to spread our original reporting, our seasoned veterans and coverage that can give you a wide perspective," she said. "I think that's way cool."
Lead anchors on the network coverage include Pelley on CBS, Brian Williams on NBC, and Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos on ABC. The Republicans meet next week in Tampa, with the Democrats meeting the following week in Charlotte.
With the dynamic media landscape, the media's long-held role as agenda-setters is changing, too. The convention coverage will be much watched to see who can best take advantage of them and rule a world where tablets, smartphones and laptops are as much a part of many people's big-event experience as flat-screen TVs.
"I have five screens at my desk right now," Lukasiewicz said. "That's kind of where I max out."