Primaried out? Had it up to here? Getting so sick of politics that voting in November is beginning to sound like a pointless chore? Blame the television networks, who have inundated the country in coverage of political primaries to an extent never before seen in an election year.
Of course, network news sources are quick to point out, there are more primaries than ever, and where there's a primary, there's a network stampede. An NBC News spokesman says all this extra coverage is a sign of democracy becoming more participatory. "It used to be more smoke-filled rooms; now it's more popular elections," he said.
But one can wonder how much legitimate national interest is served by extensive coverage of every single primary that's held. Since the primary season began, ABC News has offered six hours of special coverage, CBS News about 5 1/2 hours and NBC News 4 1/2 hours. There figures include only late-night election specials, most of them at least half an hour in length and not all the primary coverage on regular newcasts.
Each network has of course made of the election process not only a sporting event but a show; hence on ABC it's called "The '80 Vote," on CBS "Campaign '80: The Presidental Primaries," and on NBC, "Decision '80," with a little tune by Henry "Moon River" Mancini.
It sometimes feels like we're sailing down Moon River with these inflated, arduously exhaustive reports, however. Anything commerically advantageous that technology makes possible, television does. So we get instant voter profiles through "exit polls" conducted by the networks -- how people voted, why they voted that way, which side they part their hair on, whether they prefer Stove Top Stuffing to potatoes, and so on.
Aside from waiting to see whether Walter Cronkite will refer to Sen. Kennedy as "President Kennedy" (he has, at least twice, on the air so far, and Garrick Utley of NBC did it once, too), there is very little of an unpredictable nature about these reports except the results themselves, and the results have usually been given earlier on news bulletins and late night local broadcasts.
It may be time to set aside the notion that more information is automatically better information. We don't risk becoming over-informed as a nation, exactly, but we do risk being twirled into vertigo by all the information that new technologies can deliver to us. "An informed electorate" is not the same thing as an engulfed electroate, one satiated on minutiae served up by videocrats.
There is also the vicious circle problem in TV political reporting. All the newtworks went hog-wild on the Iowa caucuses this season because, in 1976, that was the first place Jimmy Carter made himself known as a political presence.
Well, all right. But then the networks decided that if the Iowa caucuses were important, the Maine caucuses were important, too, so we got coverage of those, and network newsmen made promos telling viewers that each succeeding political event would be more significant than the preceding political event. It's in the interest of each network to over-dramatize every competitive situation in politics, and this gives a distorting skew to the whole process.
The networks say they only cover the primaries because the candidates are treating them as more important and are going to more states. But of course the candidates may be going to more states because they know that then they will get more TV coverage. And so on an so on until, arghh!, you feel as though you'd rather watch anything -- Donny and Marie, or a Rona Barrett special even -- than see one more political kisser on the screen.
The joke on the networks may be that they have over-covered the primaries so religiously that they will have nothing left to cover at convention time. TV's relentless emphasis on winners and losers may have helped make the outcome of each convention a "sure thing" rather than really make the process more "participatory."
The real reason behind all the expanded coverage explains a lot, and it comes from a knowledgeable network news insider. The scenario was really born in the research departments of the networks, he says, where it was decided that in order to build news ratings, networks need to get their election teams on the air a great deal. This impresses the network team's identity on the public mind.
It's all in preparation for "the big Casino," the insider says -- the conventions themselves, in July (Republicans) and August (Democrats). But by painting themselves into corners with their primary coverage, the networks may acutally be decreasing the public's interest in the conventions -- maybe in the whole presidential election -- and will have to let out all the melodramatic stops in order to make the conventions appear to be exciting.
They're hoping and praying for platform fights, insiders say. Otherwise covering the conventions will be like "covering a football game when the score is announced in advance." What hurts, though, is that all this hyped-up coverage is the result not of a journalistic decision, but of a business decision. The business of television, even television news, is still business.