Election-free TV

The Big 3 networks are giving the candidates about 30 seconds of air time an evening. Hell, most ads are longer than that.

Published February 29, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

You may have noticed something about the Big 3 television networks' coverage of the presidential primaries this season.

There isn't any.

OK, that's not entirely true. During a hot race like Michigan's two weeks ago, the evening news of CBS, NBC and ABC all led with reports on the campaign. Ted Koppel still does an admirable job of wrapping up primary results (he's well situated, in his 11:30 p.m. time slot, to watch the last trains roll into the station). And the Sunday talk shows have become the de facto forum for candidates to debate each other and suffer the slings and arrows of the networks' best political reporters.

But that's it. Most nights, the primaries are lucky to get 30 seconds' coverage on the network news shows. That's the length of one commercial.

It wasn't always thus, of course. In the pre-cable 1960s, the Big 3 owned the presidential race, with floor-to-ceiling coverage from the New Hampshire primaries in January to the conventions in summer to the last rehash of the main event in November. Such programming established the network anchors (Walter Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley and Howard K. Smith) as the Mt. Rushmore of American political campaign coverage while making stars of such then-hotshots as Dan Rather, Sam Donaldson and Leslie Stahl.

Fast forward to Tuesday night. On ABC, as Bush and McCain were fighting hammer and tong over Virginia and Washington, you could watch an all-new "NYPD Blue."

"The fact is that we are doing a very minimal amount of coverage [of the presidential campaign] at ABC," Donaldson conceded to the Dallas Morning News a few weeks ago. "Outside of 'Nightline' and our Sunday show, ABC News in my view has simply forfeited the field. And there may be good reason for that. The cable [news] networks are just omnipresent now."

Donaldson, who made his bones beating up on Carter and Reagan, is now hosting Samdonaldson.com for the ABC site and is clearly a convert. "Boy, let me tell you, the Internet is the future!" he said, sounding just like Dad with a new pair of bongos. But just as a select minority gets its news from the Internet, so only two-thirds of the population has access to cable.

So as fine a job as MSNBC, CNN and the Fox News Channel are doing of covering the primaries, they're not reaching anything close to the 30 million viewers the networks share each night at news time. And that, according the Alliance for Better Campaign's Paul Taylor, is a crime.

"When the average cost of cable is over $40 a month, access to political coverage becomes an economic issue," he says. "If you want to witness a presidential candidate you've got to buy a ticket."

The good news for those who do get cable is that the news networks are doing a more thorough job than the Big 3 could ever do. "These small upstarts are delighted to get the brand recognition," says Taylor, a former Washington Post reporter, "much in the same way the networks took over the job of being the hosts of the campaigns in the '60s."

If people now think of Jeff Greenfield and Brian Williams when they think of political coverage, it's a boon for CNN and MSNBC, respectively. But that working-class voter with the old-fashioned antenna on his shingled roof is left with only a few seconds on the nightly news -- and, at election time, a barrage of misinforming, mind-numbing ads.

"Part of what's changed is that the portrait of politics being presented is not a particularly attractive one," says Taylor. A blizzard of ads and/or coverage about the ads is what most people without cable can expect. (A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 80 percent of the network coverage leading up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries dealt with campaign tactics and strategies, with 13 percent devoted to issues.) Such insider-baseball, with all its attendant description of push-polling, mass phoning and the like, doesn't exactly increase the public's appetite.

"It's a classic chicken-and-egg dynamic," says Taylor. "Having poisoned the well, the networks follow the public out the door."

CBS has been the most pilloried of the three networks, in part because of its half-assed coverage of the New Hampshire primaries, where the network relied on pool reporters and occasional updates of the various candidates' races, and in part because of the network's noble history of campaign coverage. In a P.R. coup for the Alliance for Better Campaigns, Walter Cronkite publicly embraced their cause, which calls for the networks to air five minutes of candidate discourse a night -- as opposed to their current 34-second average.

"You don't need to be on the bus every day to know what is going on inside a campaign," CBS political consultant Lane Venardos countered after New Hampshire. And CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather has made it a point of pride to update his coverage of the primaries in each time zone the show reaches.

But by and large, the networks seem unconcerned about their lack of interest in the campaign (and in complete denial of any sense of responsibility). Following an Iowa debate televised on cable, CBS "Early Show" host Bryant Gumbel made this remarkable admission on the air:

"I stumbled upon Saturday's [debate] and it seemed a rather sad show. I mean, here were all the Republican candidates sitting there on a Saturday afternoon answering questions from people in Iowa, and it seemed like, you know, it was just going through the motions."

Imagine that -- candidates taking questions from voters -- when they could have been discussing the hot topics of the day: Tiger Woods' coming nuptials, for instance, or Britney Spears' belly button. But as the positive response to CNN's "Showtime at the Apollo" debate between Bill Bradley and Al Gore indicated, it may be time to sauce up the format a little bit.

"Politics has to be many things and among them is good theater," says Taylor. The Democratic Party's rumble in Harlem certainly qualified, as Gore acted like he was starring in the "WWF Smack Down" and the audience oohed and hissed like the girls on "Ricki Lake."

"They have figured out how to stretch the weather from 30 seconds into five minutes with the right mix of maps, good-uncle weathercasters and what have you," he continues. "None of that imagination has been engaged in trying to build a political audience."

Considering that Bob Dylan wrote "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" in response to the Cuban missile crisis and that Washington lies about Vietnam inspired Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop the Rain?" the weather report analogy seems downright hopeful.

After all, people deserve to know what storms are blowing their way, when to stay inside, and when to get out there and vote.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Sean Elder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abc Cbs Cnn Msnbc Nbc