The quadrennial ritual is underway again. No, I don't mean the presidential election. And I don't mean the political conventions. What I'm talking about is a ritual that can unite Americans of all political persuasions: the one in which everyone gets together and condemns the broadcast networks for not carrying more of the conventions in prime time.
This year, though, the usual condemnations of ABC, CBS and NBC feel oddly out of date. Time and technology are passing the critics by. The days are largely gone when the three broadcast networks could decide what the American people would watch -- and then get them to watch it. With the advent and expansion of cable and, more recently, the Internet -- including streaming video that looks a lot like television -- there are just too many alternatives available to the audience at all times of the day and night. Now you'll attract an audience only if what you have to offer is seen to be better than hundreds, indeed thousands, of alternatives.
We've moved from a media oligarchy to a media democracy. We've gone from a few programmers in New York and Los Angeles deciding what people will watch to the people themselves voting with their remote controls every night, really every minute, on what they want.
This changes fundamentally the decision a news division makes about what it covers. If we broadcast extended convention coverage when most Americans would rather be watching something else, our audiences will flock to the alternative programming. If the conventions themselves were as interesting as they were in 1948 or 1956 -- or even 1968 -- then we wouldn't have this problem. But as we all know too well, they aren't. As much as we might like to coerce people into watching what we think to be good for them, we simply don't have that power.
But the new technology also gives us tools that we never had before. Where we once had to make an up-or-down decision -- either take the event and present it on the full broadcast network or don't take it at all -- we now have an array of ways to reach our audiences. Cable news networks were the first to move us in this direction, and NBC was the first network to have the alternative of leaving its regular broadcast network programming alone and covering news events only on its cable channel.
This year we've taken it one step further. On ABC News Now, we're covering the conventions from gavel to gavel on a service that is available simultaneously in a variety of ways -- from over-the-air digital television to digital cable to the Internet to cell phones. The idea is simple: For those Americans who want to see the two conventions from beginning to end, we want to make it available to them wherever they are and on any device they choose to use. No longer does our audience have to come to us; we'll come to our audience.
Many see this as a good thing, giving the audience a much richer smorgasbord to choose from. In the case of ABC News, we'll be covering about 24 hours of the two conventions in prime time, either on the broadcast network or on our new service, compared with only eight hours four years ago. To be sure, it may not be quite as easy to find as when people had one television that effectively had three channels. But it's there for those who want it, whenever and however they want to get it.
Others may see all this as a bad thing and long for the "good old days" when three broadcast networks could bring the entire country to the collective hearth of the television for major events, such as the Apollo 11 moon landing or the funeral of President John F. Kennedy.
But whether you see it as good or bad, it is surely inevitable. Technology made possible the choice that we're confronting, and the American people have resoundingly voted in favor of that choice. We're not going back, any more than we're returning to a time before automobiles or electricity.
The challenge we face is how to take this new world of media and make it a new world for great journalism. We're being given an opportunity. There are no assurances of success. The splintering of the media has not, in the past, always led to stronger journalism. With intelligence, daring and a bit of luck, maybe we can do better this time. Maybe we can earn the audience's attention through the strength of our reporting and presentation, even when there are virtually unlimited choices.
The writer is president of ABC News.