Tuned In

The Base, the Ratings and the Chair: The Conventions and TV

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They’re sweeping up the confetti, and political reporters are already catching flights out of Charlotte and looking ahead to the debates. But America’s still processing the Republican and Democratic conventions–to the extent that it paid attention–and here are a few thoughts, in no particular order, about the marriage of TV and politics for the past two weeks:

Conventions may not be for convincing voters anymore. Time was, conventions were an opportunity for a party to bring its message to the larger public and win over a big chunk of undecided voters going into the final stretch of the campaign. It’s too early to draw a certain conclusion, but it looks like that may not be the case anymore. Depending how you slice the polls, it looks like Mitt Romney got a minimal bounce at best from his convention, and Barack Obama (though it’s early for the polls) has not yet shown a dramatic move either. There are just fewer undecideds in a polarized country, and the recent history of conventions is toward smaller bounces.

One reason that matters is it potentially changes the message of conventions. They become more about targeting constituencies more likely to vote for you, about catering to your existing supporters, motivating the decided to volunteer, donate and vote. Thus we saw a lot of red- and blue-meat speeches in this year’s conventions (especially in the hours before the broadcast networks joined coverage at 10 pm, when the politically committed were watching no cable).

And a reason that matters in turn is: if conventions are no longer about convincing the undecided, is there still as much public interest in networks carrying them? TV has cut back in recent conventions to begin with, for self-interested reasons but also on the grounds that they’re really free political advertising. But at least there’s an argument for free political advertising, if genuinely undecided viewers are looking to it for information to make a decision. If conventions are more and more about base-motivation, TV coverage is less a public service to the viewers and more a public service to the parties. (Though one argument for that, maybe, is that it’s massive “free media” that balances out the influence of political-ad money.)

Ratings can be as politicized as poll numbers. Like any numbers attached to a campaign, the convention ratings have been spun several ways at once. You may have heard that more Americans watched Here Comes Honey Boo Boo than watched the same night of the RNC, or that Honey Boo Boo tied Bill Clinton in the ratings. Both untrue: actually, these are misleading (but attention-getting) comparisons of Honey Boo Boo, in the 18 to 49 demographic only, to the convention coverage on the highest-rated network among many airing the convention. In fact, both nights, more people watched the conventions many times over than TLC.

Ditto with the many comparisons, some hyped-up on partisan sites like Drudge, of the two parties’ conventions to each other, to previous nights, or to 2008. On Wednesday, NFL football beat Clinton (if you don’t count PBS) or Clinton beat the NFL (if you do count PBS, which, with around 4 million convention viewers, you should). The DNC’s Wednesday ratings dropped (if you ignore the fact that NBC didn’t air it) or increased (if you compare only the networks that did air both nights). And there are all of dicey comparisons with 2008, when Nielsen did not rate some networks that it includes this year (like PBS and Current TV), and when the Dems had a four-night convention, not three.

All this, anyway, ignores the fact that viewership doesn’t necessarily equal votes. The Republicans had great ratings in 2008—there was a lot of interest in Sarah Palin, and John McCain out-drew Barack Obama. Which one is running for re-election?

The opening acts beat the headliners–maybe for a reason. You may disagree, but from my seat, neither candidate had nearly the best speech of their conventions; Romney was outshined, at least, by his wife Ann and Marco Rubio; Obama, by his wife Michelle and Bill Clinton. (To me, the Democrats came across more energized, with a convention that, while not perfect, was more focused in extolling their candidate; but to be fair, I’ll remind you I’m an Obama voter.) But that may be almost inevitable now: surrogates and supporters can each come out with a very targeted job and demographic to speak to, while the top of the tickets end up focused on mentioning everything, alienating no one and avoiding self-inflicted wounds.

Even a scripted convention can still be compelling. Yes, conventions are highly staged events; there’s no doubt who will get the nomination; and the whole process is as engineered as a Bachelor rose ceremony, except with less suspense. And yet—we still got Clint Eastwood yelling at that chair. We still got Bill Clinton turning in an “I Love the 90s” performance and uniting on stage with the man he once stridently campaigned against. And in an aged of diminished audiences, the ratings are still not terrible. Conventions may be scripted, misleading and sometimes depressing. But for summer TV, you can still do much worse.