OK - you can come out now. The Democratic National Convention is over. Bruce and Shelley and Phil and Michelle are coming home. Tom and Peter and Dan have returned to their respective network thrones in New York. And prime time has been released from the grip of a four-part, eight-hour miniseries so overwhelmingly predictable it will seem like a relief to get back to the reruns.
If you're looking for the most interesting story to emerge from the Democrats' gab-arama in Atlanta this week, consider this: An estimated 13,000 journalists converged on the city to cover a highly orchestrated political event that was not really expected to generate much news. The party's presidential candidate had been determined months ago. And once Michael Dukakis received a little party unity action from Jesse Jackson, floor fights over the vice presidential nominee and party platform planks turned into love-ins.Still, newspeople covering the convention outnumbered delegates by three-to-one, causing gridlock on the convention floor and filling the Atlanta atmosphere with enough microwave transmissions to turn the Omni arena into a high-tech oven.
But why? How can an event that is essentially news-less be considered worthy of so lavish a display of media attention? The answer to those questions is found in pursuing a much larger one: Why hold these conventions at all?
There was a time when conventions were an important part of America's political decision-making process. But those days are gone, leaving behind them a series of quadrennial gatherings that have evolved into little more than extended photo opportunities - a chance to attract voters with image-oriented demonstrations and rhetoric. It's a week's worth of free publicity for party candidates and philosophies - not to mention a good time for people from all around the country to get together and wear goofy hats.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters last week that "the modern convention is an opportunity above all else to communicate a message." Which is why everything you saw in the Omni this week - from the pastel-colored podium to the red, white and blue slipcovers on the delegates' folding chairs - was designed with the television audience in mind.
"We looked at this hall as a television studio," said Democratic Party chairman Paul Kirk. "Television has changed everything."
But perhaps it is time for television itself to change. Sure, the national political conventions are big stories and deserve coverage. But a more sensible approach would be for the networks to cover the conventions just like they covered the recent U.S.-Soviet Summit in Moscow - with reporting crews and on-site anchors who offer extensive coverage during regularly scheduled newscasts and who are ready to go on the air immediately with breaking news, when and if it happens.
Local TV reporters could be there too, I guess. But to tell you the truth, I didn't see anything this week that convinced me it was worth the trouble. Certainly the results didn't justify KSL's decision to send two news anchors, two reporters and a veritable caucus-full of technicians and producers. In a day when news directors at all three local stations are facing budget restraints, such overkill seems a needless extravagance.
Political junkies - people who genuinely like the one-sided convention tedium - would still have cable specialty services like CNN and C-SPAN for live gavel-to-gavel coverage. And the rest of us could go back to those reruns. I know, I know - that isn't exactly an appetizing thought. But it's certainly preferable to multiple hours of prime time media manipulation.
* As if to underscore that sentiment, the A.C. Nielsen Co. is reporting that the audience for the first night of network convention coverage was down significantly from 1984. According to numbers released Wednesday, NBC scored the highest with viewers Monday night, pulling in an average 6.2 rating and an 11 percent share of the viewing audience. That's down from 1984's opening night, which CBS won with an 8.4 rating, and 1980, when NBC was first with a rating of 9.6.
The numbers picked up significantly on Tuesday night, when Jesse Jackson's stirring speech before the convention attracted an 8.8 rating and a 17 percent audience share to front-runner NBC. But even those numbers are down from previous years. The tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention, for example, scored an impressive 16.1 rating.
Part of the fall-off has to do with the proliferation of cable coverage on CNN and C-SPAN. But part of the decline also has to do with a clear signal that viewers are sending to networks: (see above).