Over the last few U.S. presidential election cycles, the major television networks have chosen to broadcast just one hour each night from the respective parties’ political conventions, usually out of concern that anything more would impact viewership numbers and ad revenues.
But this year, another explanation was offered for keeping the broadcasts short: uncertainty over what airing President Donald Trump’s coronation event might look and sound like.
Multiple sources told The Daily Beast that when Democratic officials met with various broadcast network executives about their convention coverage plans, the executives stressed that they could not broadcast two hours each night in part because they then would have to give the same airtime to Trump, and all the wild unpredictability that might entail from an editorial perspective.
“We don’t know what that content is going to be,” was the line offered up, according to one source.
While the Democrats decided months ago that their national convention would be a virtual event, it wasn’t until July 23—when Trump decided that the COVID-19 pandemic would make his plans for a gathering in Jacksonville unworkable—that the GOP followed suit. The result was that the Democrats provided the networks with a detailed schedule of speakers and videos while the Republicans’ convention schedule is still a moving target.
Executives at multiple networks told The Daily Beast privately that they were still almost completely in the dark about basic details of next week’s RNC, including its format and its roster of speakers.
In the end, the networks have decided to broadcast the conventions from 10 p.m. through 11 p.m. each night (though, often, the events run longer), while cable-news networks have generally said they plan to cover the festivities from 9 p.m. onward. CNN and NBC’s sister cable network, MSNBC, are airing all two hours of the nightly convention, punctuated by on-air commentary, while CBS and ABC are providing full coverage on their digital online outlets, ABC News Live and CBSN; Fox News, meanwhile, did not cover the first hour of the Democrats’ opening convention night.
The breakdown in coverage plans mirrors what has been done in past conventions. In 2012 and 2016, the three major broadcast networks all opted to air just an hour live. But 2020 has proven different in substantive ways, and not just because of Trump.
For starters, the conventions themselves have been compressed because of the pandemic, and—if the opening night is any indication—much of the content being presented is now pre-packaged. The networks, moreover, are choosing to air recycled material during the 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. slots rather than any new episodes of their popular shows (as production units have been shut down by the pandemic).
In 2012, for example, the DNC’s lead-in on ABC one night was a new two-hour broadcast of The Bachelor, while its lead-in on NBC was American Ninja Warrior. The two reality-TV shows were the highest-rated programs on their respective networks. On Monday, NBC aired an old episode of American Ninja Warrior, while CBS aired a months-old episode of courtroom drama All Rise, and Fox broadcast 9-1-1: Lone Star.
And then there is the predicament that is broadcasting anything Trump-related.
The president has complicated editorial decisions for TV executives in part because of his penchant for peddling lies, misinformation, and conspiracy theories. Networks have come under intense scrutiny from media critics and Democrats for giving Trump unfiltered air time to spread propaganda and/or failing to fact-check some of his more dangerous claims in real-time.
That has been especially true during the coronavirus era, during which the president has routinely downplayed the severity of the pandemic, pushed unproven therapies, and attempted to discredit public-health experts that contradict his preferred policies.
The RNC also promises to be a hodgepodge of Trump sycophants, coronavirus skeptics, and alleged victims of “cancel culture.” In addition to a slate of expected speakers, including former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Sens. Tim Scott and Joni Ernst, and Alice Johnson, the criminal-justice reform activist whose life sentence was commuted by Trump, others reportedly set to address the crowd include the St. Louis couple who were charged with unlawful use of a weapon after pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters earlier this year, and Nick Sandmann, a high-school graduate who became a conservative cause célèbre after he sued media outlets for defamation following video of his face-to-face encounter with a Native American activist in D.C.
It’s unclear if those concerns were at the heart of the networks’ decision to keep the broadcasts to one hour in length, or whether they were a fig leaf to rationalize airing more ad-revenue-generating content compared to the telethon-like DNC spectacle.
“I would be very skeptical of that theory of why the networks are carrying them for only one hour,” said former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, who has covered every political convention, Democrat and Republican, since he was a local reporter in Houston (and famously was knocked down by plainclothes security agents as he was broadcasting live from the floor of the 1968 Democratic confab in Chicago). “I’m not cynical about it, but I’m skeptical because the networks in recent times never wanted to give the conventions very much time,” Rather told The Daily Beast, “because they can cram in more commercials with even deadwood content.”
Indeed, it is true that American TV viewers have waning interest in the conventions as of late. According to Nielsen, about 18.7 million Americans tuned into the first night of the DNC convention on the major television networks, a nearly 28 percent drop from viewership during the Democrats’ 2016 convention.
Rather added that while the Democrats so far have provided well-produced political theater amounting to effective messaging, especially Michelle Obama’s speech, the comparatively disorganized Republicans, under Trump’s reality-show influence, might end up as more exciting—and perhaps surreal—to watch.
“I think it’s one of the things that Trump and the Republicans are banking on,” he said. “It will be unpredictable, will have surprises, and they’ll be hoping that people will tune in just to see what’s going to happen.”
Certainly, the days of gavel-to-gavel convention coverage have now become a distant memory—the broadcast networks starting slashing airtime for the political parties’ quadrennial infomercials in 1984—and we are firmly in the short-attention-span age of the nominating convention-lite.