Whether you loved Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's shade-throwing non-endorsement speech Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention or considered it poor sportsmanship, there is no disputing this: It was good television. The cheers, the jeers, the spotlight-stealing entrance by Donald Trump — the whole thing was compelling drama.
But such moments are rare in an era of carefully choreographed conventions that often resemble infomercials for the Republican and Democratic parties. Events that originated as messy nominating contests have become made-for-TV specials with predetermined outcomes, viewed by politicians as can't-miss opportunities to deliver one-sided messages to a national audience with minimal journalistic filtration.
How did we get here?
The history of political conventions on TV mirrors the history of the television itself. No surprise there. As TV ownership exploded from less than 1 percent of U.S. households in 1948 to a majority in 1954, convention organizers in both major parties adapted the events to take advantage of the new medium.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications describes the effect of TV on political conventions during this period as "immediate."
After watching the first televised Republican convention in 1952, Democratic Party officials made last-minute changes to their own convention in attempts to maintain the attention of viewers at home.
By 1956, both parties further amended their convention programs to better fit the demands of television coverage. Party officials condensed the length of the convention, created uniform campaign themes for each party, adorned convention halls with banners and patriotic decorations, placed television crews in positions with flattering views of the proceedings, dropped daytime sessions, limited welcoming speeches and parliamentary organization procedures, scheduled sessions to reach a maximum audience in prime time, and eliminated seconding speeches for vice presidential candidates. Additionally, the presence of television cameras encouraged parties to conceal intraparty battling and choose geographic host cities amenable to their party.
Decorations and prime-time scheduling are one thing; scripted coronations are another. The key to creating the four-day advertisements for preordained nominees that we see today was a shift by both major parties toward primary selection processes, according to Kathryn Cramer Brownell, a history professor at Purdue University who studies the intersections of politics, media and entertainment. Democrats held primaries and caucuses in every state for the first time in 1972; Republicans followed in 1976.
"Television became a tool as the nature of the nominating process changed," said Brownell, author of "Showbiz Politics." "It became a tool to rebrand and rebuild the party. When conventions are no longer about selecting the nominee but rather easing all of the divides that emerged on the primary trail, they play a very different role. Since 1980, conventions have been made for the television cameras."
You may think TV networks and journalists would appreciate this kind of catering, but that's not always the case. In 1998, the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University published a paper by Zachary Karabell, now a contributing editor at Politico, that chronicled frustrations in the media.
In September of 1996, journalists took stock of the recently completed Democratic and Republican presidential conventions. The verdict was nearly unanimous: The conventions had become political set pieces devoid of meaningful content. Halfway through the Republican convention in San Diego, Ted Koppel and the "Nightline" crew left, claiming that "they were bored and had better things to do." ... One reporter expressed the view of many when he called the conventions "scripted infomercials." ...
Already in 1988 and 1992, the crescendo of criticism was mounting. Ratings had been on a steady skid for years, and between 1992 and 1996 they were down by nearly 15 percent, and viewership was down as much as a third. 1992 was considered a ratings debacle by network news executives, and at the conclusion of the Republican convention, ABC News President Roone Arledge gave serious consideration to pulling ABC out of convention coverage altogether. While prime-time coverage was scaled back by all three networks to one hour a night in 1996, the 1996 conventions provoked many more calls for the networks to stop covering the conventions live and in prime-time.
If you've been watching this week, you know that ABC, CBS and NBC still cover conventions live each night for an hour — or a little more, as they did Wednesday, when the GOP's vice-presidential nominee, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, continued his speech past 11 p.m. Eastern. But the broadcast networks aren't turning over prime-time air as they once did.
Such cutbacks might have forced the political parties to stop sanitizing conventions but for the growth of cable news. You won't cover our staged productions all night, CBS? Fine. CNN will.
Ahead of the Republican National Convention in 2000, the New York Times documented cable news channels' willingness to keep airing what the broadcast networks no longer would.
Anyone up for 264 hours of convention coverage a day?
The number may sound highly improbable, given that a political convention only lasts for four days. (Or 96 hours, if no one sleeps.) But 264 hours is the amount of daily exposure that one television network, CNN, has told Republican officials that it will supply for their presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia starting in late July.
CNN's estimate — made viable by the cable network's growing array of 24-hour news outlets, ranging from CNN International to CNN En Espanol to CNNfn, all of which will simultaneously carry convention programming — was disclosed to the Republican National Convention as part of CNN's pitch for space in the hall of the First Union Center in Philadelphia. …
The breadth of the network's plan is a reflection of the rapidly changing nature of convention coverage. As the traditional over-the-air networks scale back their coverage, with some promising only an hour of prime-time convention news each night, cable networks and websites are stepping into the void with wall-to-wall plans.
Today CNN, Fox News and MSNBC show no signs of reducing convention coverage. These events are their Olympics. That's good news for the Republican and Democratic parties, which have no incentive to change.
So savor the flash of intrigue provided by Cruz in Cleveland. Who knows when we'll get another?