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Dissenting Discourse

John Scalzi of “By The Way,” in a post about archived DNC speeches online adds an aside as a slam to the broadcast networks which have decided not to air wall-to-wall coverage of this year’s Democratic and Republican Conventions:

“…way to show your committment to the public discourse, guys…”

In the old days, when a political convention actually selected which of several candidates most represented the goals of the constituents, such an event was full of discourse by different candidates who had different ideas within their own party. Back then, political conventions were dramatic because not everyone knew for certain who was going to be that party’s nominee. There was at least a chance for surprises.

These days, a political convention is nothing more than a propaganda machine, conducted by flashy producers who are far more concerned with appearances than content. They know going in who their man will be. Rather than identifying the biggest goals of the various members of the party and prioritizing them, today’s conventions are merely a pep rally for the man who is already selected, whether the delegates like it or not. At best, they hope everyone will “get on board” with the already-announced nominee. At best, everyone who is there and most of those who are watching already have.

The broadcast networks have chosen to bank on the notion that most people would rather not sit through wall-to-wall coverage, since it is being offered online and on cable during those times when the networks themselves aren’t carrying it.

Is that a fair notion? Let’s take a look at what the numbers indicate:

A paltry 14.1 million homes, according to Nielsen Media Research, were tuned in to Bill Clinton’s speech during opening night ceremonies of this year’s convention. That’s down from 15.38 million in 2000.

The article points out CBS as an example of the viewing habits that evening: 11.8 million viewers tuned in at 9pm to see a rerun of “CSI: Miami.” At 10pm, when the Network’s coverage of the convention began, CBS’s viewership dropped from 11.8 million down to 4.55 million! I’m no great mathematician, but if my quick division is correct, that looks to be a drop of about 60% of the audience.

What’s worse, when you combine the total number of viewers who were watching the convention on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, (and one might assume that those who are diehard political fans were tuned to one of those sources), the sum is almost equal to the number watching CBS’s convention coverage alone.

So what does this mean? Perhaps a combination of things:

Maybe it’s that the public isn’t interested in “public discourse” when it comes in the form of a propaganda event, like today’s political conventions have become.

It could be that most of the people who were watching that night have already made up their mind. If Bush is their man, they may not want to hear what those “crazy liberals” want to say. If Kerry already has their vote, they may feel that the convention is a waste of their time…they already know in their minds who the right choice happens to be.

It could be that the masses of undecided voters don’t feel that a political convention is a place to get anything other than a single side of the story which is carefully crafted to look like the only reasonable path to choose.

Or, it could be that both parties, which have sought to divide the masses so bitterly against each other, have disgusted so many viewers that they have reached a point where they’d rather watch grass grow before tuning in to hear more rhetoric from either side.

I could be wrong, but the fact that viewership dropped so dramatically on the broadcast networks when coverage did begin, and the fact that the numbers on cable didn’t jump to make up for the difference, suggests to me that many people just don’t want that kind of public discourse these days.

I suspect that the numbers tonight, when John Kerry himself will speak, should be higher.

I hope, in the spirit of public discourse, that Kerry is able to make a good showing, so that he can define who he is and what he wants well enough that those who are voting “against Bush” have a reasonable justification to vote for him! (A write-in vote for MickeyMouse, after all, is a vote for someone who “isn’t Bush.”) Whether the undecided voters take the valid alternatives Kerry the candidate presents to them or not, they should have a clear understanding of what those alternatives are when they step into the voting booth.

I must confess that I’m quite curious about whether the spirit of public discourse (not to mention fairness) will inspire those who complain about the reduction of broadcast network coverage of the Democratic National Convention to repeat their argument with the same determination, in late August, when the GOP convenes for its convention.

I know that John will present a similar archive of information from the Republican convention; he has already said so in the post. John and I share the view that voters should be informed before they head to the polls.

But as for most of the others, I’m not holding my breath: I haven’t stumbled upon great throngs of Bush supporters who are complaining that the Democratic convention isn’t getting as much prime time coverage as it used to.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.