The GOP Convention ratings debacle, Day 1

CBS and ABC tune in, America tunes out and NBC wins by ignoring the convention entirely.

By Eric Boehlert
Published August 1, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Like a mother trying to hide the medicine, CBS dutifully aired its GOP Convention coverage last night between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. It wasn't exactly a loving embrace. Doing its best to make prime-time politics appealing, the network wrapped the convention around a "48 Hours" episode.

Viewers didn't buy it. Minutes after an obligatory investigative segment on human testing ended and CBS switched to Dan Rather in Philadelphia, the audience bailed.

It's one thing for a network to lose eyeballs from one hour to the next (ABC lost nearly half its audience when the pre-season pro football telecast ended and the network's convention coverage began). But in the middle of a show? And you wonder why network execs hate orchestrated political events?

Washington Post television critic Tom Shales slammed CBS for its tepid coverage. "Andrew Heyward," Shales wrote of the network's news president, "has lots to answer for having authorized such slipshod, half-baked, cockamamie coverage."

Tepid, indeed. CBS missed Laura Bush's speech and chopped off the first few minutes of Gen. Colin Powell's keynote address. Still, when CBS/Viacom honcho Mel Karmazin gets a look at the dreadful convention numbers, his only question may be, Why are we even in Philadelphia? (which raises the inevitable follow-up question: Why are we going to be in Los Angeles for the Democrats' love-fest?)

ABC News also toyed with the idea of masking its GOP coverage. The plan was to air it during halftime of the football game. But still smarting, perhaps, from the Leonardo-DiCaprio-as-journalist fiasco of last spring, the network had a change of heart and moved kickoff time up an hour. It didn't help much: Not only did ABC's political coverage bring in weak numbers, the highly touted debut of comedian-turned-color-commentator Dennis Miller fell flat, too. The game's ratings were off badly from last summer's pre-season numbers.

How bad were the convention's overnight tallies? So bad they turned NBC -- which completely ignored the convention -- into a winner. The other networks' numbers were so bad, NBC's backup rescue show "Third Watch" became a momentary hit. A repeat episode of the drama scored a 7.1 rating, which was way up over last week and easily outpacing the podium coverage offered up by ABC (4.3) or CBS (4.7) As for the important TV demo of 18-49, it was even uglier, with ABC (2.2) and CBS (2.1) falling into no man's land.

More specifically, CBS's 18-to-49 rating during the half-hour that Powell spoke registered a barely breathing 1.9. But who can blame the young folks? Just as Powell was urging America to renew its commitment to education, the USA network wrestling program "Raw Is War" featured the Rock laying out arch-enemy Triple H with a steel chair. When he collapsed, Triple H fell face-first into the crotch of his buxom tag-team partner Trish! Let's see a Gulf War hero do that.

(As part of a WWF get-out-the-vote campaign -- we're not making this up -- the Rock will appear at the GOP Convention Wednesday night. According to the WWF, the organization will probably appear in some form at the Democrats' convention.)

Returning to the absent NBC, some are amazed that the network of John Chancellor, who was memorably bounced by the police from the GOP bash back in '64 while reporting on air, was able to get away without having to perform Philly hall-monitoring duties. Simple: Its parent company GE was smart enough to buy a couple of cable news operations. On Monday night, GE offspring MSNBC was able to air hours and hours of respectable convention coverage while big brother NBC concentrated on paying the bills.

But all is not lost. NBC has promised to cover the convention on Wednesday and Thursday nights -- for an hour.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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