The Democrats put on a slickly produced, prime-time "miniseries" for the networks but succeeded so well that the networks are considering cutting back on future convention coverage.
ABC News President Roone Arledge even suggested Thursday that his network would cut back on coverage for the Republican National Convention in August."If you keep the conventions in this form, obviously it's not attracting anybody to the process," said Arledge. "It's driving people at home not to watch, to find something else rather than watch the political process. It's not healthy for the country."
NBC and CBS said they would give the same coverage to the GOP as they did to the Democrats.
CBS even added an hour to its coverage of the closing session of the Democratic National Convention on Thursday, beginning at 8 p.m. EDT instead of 9. CBS viewers therefore got to see one of the better speeches, the vibrant and stirring seconding speech for Lloyd Bentsen delivered by former Rep. Barbara Jordan, speaking from her wheelchair. NBC and ABC joined in midspeech.
CBS declined to run a campaign film on Michael Dukakis that the other networks carried, filling in instead with commentary and a commercial.
There was controversy at the 1984 GOP convention when NBC was the only network to carry an 18-minute film produced by President Reagan's re-election campaign.
The six-minute Dukakis film was narrated by his cousin, Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis, who introduced him on the podium.
ABC said it ran the Dukakis film because it was short. NBC and CNN ran the Dukakis film as just another part of the proceedings.
Thursday night's concluding session was Dukakis' show, and after three days of prime-time coverage of the well-orchestrated and therefore mostly dull convention, the networks just let it play out on Thursday.
The ratings for this year's Democratic convention have been running about 10 percent lower than the ratings for the 1984 convention. The networks carried gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions until 1984, but ratings have been in a decline since 1976. That's due in part to the primary system eliminating the drama of the nomination conventions, but also the proliferation of video and cable providing other viewing options.
Arledge, who has been most outspoken about the generally lackluster event, said his network's coverage, including two hours a night of prime time, "might be less in '92, if the situation were identical. It might be less at the Republican convention. Depends on what they do," Arledge said.
NBC News President Lawrence K. Gross-man said NBC would not cut back on the GOP out of fairness after giving so much prime time exposure to the Democrats but would reassess the amount of coverage in 1992.
CBS News President Howard Stringer argued that since it's summer, most viewers would just get reruns on the networks anyway. He wouldn't speculate on 1992 but said the prospect of doing prime-time coverage remains "attractive."
"This is a moment, perhaps the only moment, and there are four days of it, when the American people can get to know the political leaders," he said. "Otherwise it's a min-ute-twenty and sound bites."
"There's always going to be an audience for the process of selecting the leadership of the country," said CBS anchor Dan Rather. "On any given night, it's not going to be as big as the audience for whatever inane sitcom is on, but some network news department is going to cover. Bank it, bet it, if nobody else does, CBS News is going to do it."
Former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, who has been covering conventions since 1952, agrees they have become less functional.
"We are in the position of covering a staged entertainment, and it turns out the parties are not nearly as good at that as they are at politics," he said.
But he said he did not favor cutting coverage. "I think it's a shame the public is not more attentive to these proceedings. The mere gathering of these people in one hall is, I think, fascinating unto itself."