These investments of money and manpower come at a time when even the political parties have been scrutinizing the length and cost of their quadrennial meetings. Republican leaders last week openly debated whether their four-day, $100 million affair (shortened by one day due to Hurricane Isaac) had become excessive, that three days might be plenty.
They are unlikely to get much argument about that from the news media. “It’s not my place to tell anyone how to run a convention or how long to run it, but it wouldn’t bother me at all if they tightened it up,” said John F. Harris, editor in chief of Politico, which sent 70 journalists to Tampa and Charlotte. “The timing is unquestionably a drag. They’re bunched too close together. And it’s weird having one after Labor Day.”
But, he adds, “We’ll be there as long as there are conventions, I guess, and pretty enthusiastically at that.”
The broadcast networks have been cutting back their coverage of the conventions since the gavel-to-gavel days of the “I Love Lucy” era. The legacy networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — broadcast 90 minutes per night during the 1996 conventions; now they set aside just an hour (between 10 and 11 p.m.), devoting the rest of their prime-time hours to entertainment shows.
The cutbacks have been propelled by the rise of cable TV news, video streaming online and the decline and aging of convention audiences — roughly two-thirds of viewers are older than 55. TV ratings for the conventions this year have been down by 20 percent or more compared with 2008, although they’ve been near those of the 2004 meetings. Nevertheless, the audience watching on cable and broadcast TV has been getting older and smaller for more than 30 years.
Even at an hour per night, the networks lose money on the conventions. The reason: Lengthy speeches — Bill Clinton’s clocked in at 48 minutes on Wednesday — provide few opportunities for commercial breaks.
“When was the last time you saw a scripted or reality show or sports show even or a newsmag [go as long] without an ad break?” said one network executive who asked not to be named because he’s not an official spokesman. “So you’re losing money on the hour each night, given the costs” of coverage.
The networks can’t quit altogether, however, because “you can’t be a credible news organization if you don’t cover” the conventions, he said.