They're big. They're unruly. And more often than not, they make for pretty dull television.
But political conventions are an important part of this country's democratic process, which is why Utah's three TV news outlets are sparing no expense to bring you next week's Democratic National Convention from Atlanta - live and in living red, white and blue.Wait a minute. Local coverage of a national convention? Isn't that supposed to be a function of network news? For years it was. But while cable news channel CNN will be on the scene with gavel-to-gavel coverage and all three broadcast networks plan two hours of prime time coverage each night of the July 18-21 convention, technological advances make it possible for local stations to invade the smoke-filled rooms of the political decision-making process.
KTVX, for example, is sending a five-person crew to Atlanta's Omni coliseum - news anchor Phil Riesen, reporter Rod Jackson, a producer and two photographer/editors. KUTV will counter with eight people, including news anchor Michelle King, reporters Rod Decker and Deborah Lindner and news managing editor Brad Remington.
And KSL, which is heading a consortium of five stations, is sending a veritable army of 20 telecasters, including news anchors Bruce Lindsay and Shelley Thomas, newly appointed political specialist Dave Schmertz, Washington correspondent Charles Sherrill, technical guru Greg James, producer Linda Day and news managing editor Ernie Ford.
That's 33 people from local TV stations - not to mention dozens of Utah newspaper, magazine and radio reporters - to cover a convention that will be attended by only 28 Utah delegates.
Do we smell a case of media overkill?
Not at all, say officials at all three stations.
"We're electing a president of the United States," said KUTV's Remington. "We believe it's our responsibility to give our viewers as much information as possible so they can make educated voting decisions. And that includes being on hand to capture whatever history is made at the convention and to tell the story from the Utah perspective."
KSL news director Spence Kinard agreed, including political conventions among the country's important "moments when decisions are made." But he also acknowledged that the plodding pace of the proceedings makes it possible for viewers to "get bored to death."
"That's why we don't try to compete with the networks on the big stories," Kinard said. "Instead, we try to supplement what they are doing by covering the stories that are peculiar to Utah."
"We tell our reporters not to even try to follow the big stories because the networks are going to beat them there," said KTVX news director John Edwards. "What we want are cause-and-effect stories - stories that tell us what the convention is doing and how it will impact people back home. And we want to look at the convention through the eyes of the Utah delegates."
To that end, Ch. 4 photographers have already taped footage with some of the Utah delegates at their respective homes. Even with that, however, Edwards said it's tough to justify local coverage of national political conventions on a strictly journalistic level.
"You're just not going to get a lot of hard news out of the convention," he said. "What you get out of it is a presence. You're telling viewers that you're there to do the reporting that needs to be done."
And Edwards admitted that there is a certain "herd instinct" in the convention coverage, as well. "Our competition is going to be there," he said, "so we have to be there. Let's be honest - we're No. 3 in the local news ratings. We've got to show everybody that we've got the same capabilities as the other guys."
Officials at the No. 1- and No. 2-rated stations - KSL and KUTV (or KUTV and KSL, depending on which ratings service you care to believe) - don't talk about "herd instinct" ("We've always been the leader in political coverage," Kinard insisted). But they do acknowledge that there are other reasons for making such a substantial commitment to convention coverage beyond the news - reasons they feel justify the hundreds of thousands of dollars they are collectively spending to bring viewers the latest information from Atlanta.
"There's no bottom line answer to this project," Kinard said.
Added KSL's Ford: "This is just part of the cost of doing business for us. It has to do with credibility. There's no immediate dollars and cents value. This is just what we do. When there's a big story, we're there."
"People have to understand," Remington said, "that we have a legitimate interest in what goes on in the world. We're not just bottom-line oriented. I mean, I want the station to do well and make money, but I won't sell my soul for the numbers."
Remington will try to hang onto his soul by directing the Ch. 2 news team from Atlanta, where King, Decker and Lindner will offer reports during KUTV's newscasts at noon, 6 and 10 p.m. "Our emphasis will be on local issues and concerns," Remington said, although he indicated his reporters will try to line up interviews with big-time national politicians, including presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.
"We want to know if these people are going to care about or understand key Western issues," Remington said.
Like the other two Utah stations, KTVX will share convention facilities with a group of stations from other parts of the country. "We will anchor our newscasts from Salt Lake," Edwards said, "but we'll have live drop-ins from Riesen and Jackson every evening." The two reporters will also produce an episode of "Utah 1988" that will air July 24.
Edwards likes the opportunity to get his news anchors out from behind the anchor desk (Karen Carns will switch places with Riesen for the Republican Convention in New Orleans next month). "This is a good time to reinforce to the public that anchors aren't desk-bound," he said. "That's important to me, and it's important to them. Neither Phil nor Karen wants to be known as a hothouse flower."
Since KSL is in charge of the station consortium it belongs to, James and Ford have spent most of the past week in Atlanta setting up the elaborate technological accommodations the stations will need. "In essence, we've been establishing a new TV station down here," Ford said. "We've got an entire news room, complete with 12 computer terminals, wire services, a production studio and 52 telephone lines."
"I've never been involved in something this complicated," said Ford, a veteran of both broadcast and print journalism. "I'm going to be absolutely amazed if all of this stuff really works."
KSL will take advantage of the facilities by anchoring their entire 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts from Atlanta each night ("Dick Nourse and Keith McCord will be back in the studio in Salt Lake waiting for the satellite to fail," Ford said). The Ch. 5 team will be reporting during each news program and presenting some behind-the-scenes information during "Prime Time Access." Ford will also do a "Roundtable" installment from Atlanta.
Representatives from all three stations say they will be ready to cut into the coverage all three national news networks plan from 7 to 9 each evening if something of local interest should present itself.
And - oh yeah - they also say they'll be ready to do it all over again next month, when the Republicans get together in New Orleans.