The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 2020 Democratic National Convention won with viewers. Now its organizers hope to win an Emmy.

Jill and Joe Biden acknowledge the virtual crowd after his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in August on the final day of the Democratic National Convention. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Its four-night run was entertaining, intriguingly visual, at times surprising, even witty. It featured bona fide stars and supporting players in vignettes that were often sharply drawn, sometimes moving. The innovations it introduced will probably have an impact on the form for years to come.

And it certainly wasn’t politics as usual — the pandemic saw to that. But was it award-winning art?

The work under discussion isn’t a Broadway play or a series on Hulu. It is August’s Democratic National Convention, the first all-virtual version of the quadrennial political extravaganza. Widely praised for its seamless pacing, technological mastery and thematic discipline — not to mention the Rhode Island delegation’s memorable calamari moment — the convention rewrote the rules for using mass media to galvanize voters and invigorate a campaign.

And now, some of its key operatives are seeking another endorsement: not from their partisan peers, but from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Yes, organizers of the digital convention are improvising again, going after another brand of nomination — from the Emmy Awards, the coveted TV trophies that will be handed out this year on Sept. 19.

The convention isn’t just efficient. It’s award-worthy television

A campaign is afoot by its producers to garner nods for the Democrats’ web-and-telecast in two creative arts categories, an effort unheard of in the annals of party-organized programming: one for the convention, as outstanding hosted nonfiction series or special, and one for the inauguration night show hosted by Tom Hanks, “Celebrating America,” as outstanding live variety special. Ballots for the nominations have gone out to academy voters and are to be tabulated next month. Sometimes, such “for your consideration” efforts are mounted in advertisements in trade publications; this one is being waged, it seems, mainly by talking up the idea in free forums.

“I never thought I would be part of something that would be submitted for an Emmy nomination,” said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic political consultant who was an adviser to President Barack Obama and served as a producer of both the 2020 convention and the inauguration celebration.

“It’s a little out of sync with how people in Washington think,” she said during a Zoom interview. “But we were encouraged by a lot of people across the country, including people in the business, that we should submit. So while we’re a long shot, because nothing like this has ever happened before, it’s fun to try.”

National conventions have had an intensifying focus on show business over the course of multiple presidential election cycles. As engaging the largest possible TV audience has long been the goal, the political parties have hired producers and directors from Hollywood and Broadway to oversee portions of the programming that are spotlighted in prime time. What was different this year was how radically the presentation shifted in message management and packaging. The Republican National Convention, telecast a week later, was an inferior facsimile and attracted fewer viewers, according to Neilsen’s TV ratings; it’s far-fetched in any event to contemplate a major arts academy giving a nod to any sort of Trumpfest.

No longer were network cameras fixed on a static platform in a vast convention hall, as TV reporters roamed the state delegations for interviews and speaker after speaker took a turn on the podium. The spread of the coronavirus — at one of its peaks in Wisconsin, where the convention was to occur — eradicated plans for the status quo. Instead, on each successive night, Aug. 17-20, a well-known celebrity host (Kerry Washington and Julia Louis-Dreyfus among them) emceed from a Los Angeles studio. Under the direction of Ricky Kirshner, who has produced both the Tony Awards and the Kennedy Center Honors, the convention unfolded as riveting appointment television.

Forget the soporific speeches and goofy hats. A virtual convention is the way to go

“If it’s a traditional convention, you have a built-in audience: You’ve got thousands of people in the hall with you,” Cutter explained. “If you’re producing a virtual convention, you’re really in it with all of America. You can’t build it for applause, you have to build it for emotion.”

That is the essence of what distinguished the digital gathering — with speeches by most of the luminaries trimmed to a muscular several minutes, and brief, well-produced segments with regular folks. (The program each evening was kept to an economical two hours, much tighter than what has been programmed in the past, though broadcast networks tended in recent cycles to limit their coverage of day and evening-long sessions to as little as an hour, and consigned the rest to cable or streaming.) Ideologically, of course, the DNC appeal was to the center and left on the political spectrum; agitprop is deeply rooted in the performing arts. The framing and the casting, though, elevated it to inordinately effective storytelling.

Night Three, hosted by Washington, was not the newsmaking capstone. That was reserved for Night Four, when Joe Biden spoke from Wilmington, Del. But the third night was the most emotional, and packed with remarkable moments, as in the video of a girl named Estela reading a letter to then-President Donald Trump. Her father was a Marine who served in Iraq; her mother, deported to Mexico by the Trump administration. “Instead of protecting us,” Estela said, “you tore our world apart.”

“I thought, ‘We will never go back to a traditional convention,’” said Anita Dunn, a senior White House adviser to Biden who also had a central role in Biden’s 2020 campaign. In a recent phone interview, she detailed how the pandemic compelled Kirshner, Cutter and Adrienne Elrod, who directed surrogate operations and strategy for the campaign, to revise the plans again and again for how Biden and vice-presidential candidate Kamala D. Harris would be nominated and celebrated. The convention was originally scheduled to be live and in Milwaukee in July; it was moved into August in the hopes the coronavirus numbers would flatten by then, which didn’t happen.

“To Ricky’s credit, he dealt with the incredible shrinking convention all summer,” Dunn said. “The convention is a party function, but when you strip away the afternoon programming and just boil it down, what the virtual format allowed us to do was to make it a convention where all of America could be included.”

Not, though, without a lot of anxiety. “We had 50 different shapes from March until August,” Kirshner said on the Zoom call with Cutter, referring to the various convention permutations that were considered. “When it started becoming real that we were going to do this virtually, from a production point of view our main thing was, it’s not going to look like a Zoom call. And that kept being our mantra.”

The most inspired rethink occurred on Night Two, with what will be remembered as the most exuberant, wacky and therefore quintessentially human sequence: the vote-reporting roll call of the states. From more than 50 locations — Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and other territories contribute votes, too — delegations offered video versions of the self-promoting speeches normally delivered from the convention floor.

“Everybody across the country had been holed up in their homes because of covid, so we looked at this as taking people on a tour of the country, letting them see what everybody else is doing,” Cutter said. “It is one of the best examples of where we were kind of diving off the diving board into the deep end without really knowing how it was going to turn out.”

Some state delegations approached the task of submitting a 30-second video with more virtuosity than others; some featured narrators in festive costumes. But Rhode Island took the prize for most-talked-about roll-call vote, with the best prop: a plate of calamari — the state appetizer, no less — brandished by a masked chef on a beach, standing alongside the state party chairman, Joseph M. McNamara. There’s no word on the impact on the Ocean State’s seafood sales.

For your consideration now: the award-worthiness of digitized politics. Nomination or no nomination, the producers can say they achieved their most important goal — their team won — and they’re convinced that a novel response to trying times played its part.

“Once you took away that podium, and you’re filming people in their own homes or on the street corner, or in their community center,” Cutter said, “that really gave life to the voices of the people who matter most.”

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