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Mission impossible? Turning a political convention into exciting TV

By BETH FOUHY | Associated Press
August 23, 2012

Balloons fall on the floor at the 2008 Republican Convention.
(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Patriotic music? Check. Balloon drop? Check. Sign-waving delegates? Check. Viewer interest in this summer’s Republican and Democratic national conventions? Still unclear.

With the parties’ quadrennial presidential nominating gatherings fast approaching, organizers on both sides are bedeviled by a similar challenge: how to raise TV viewer interest in the multiday affairs, which threaten to be largely predictable spectacles nearly devoid of suspense.

The conventions were a ratings hit in 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama became the first black presidential nominee for a major party and Sarah Palin made her national debut as Republican John McCain’s running mate. This year’s gatherings promise fewer gee-whiz moments, with both party’s nominees long settled and polls showing public confidence in politics and government at a record low.

Republicans are set to meet for four days in Tampa, Fla., beginning Monday to confer their party’s nomination on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Despite all the detailed planning, there could be a surprise twist: Weather forecasters say Tropical Storm Isaac poses a possible threat to Florida as the GOP gathers there.

The Democrats will convene Sept. 3-6 in Charlotte, N.C., in hopes of giving Obama another term. After a Labor Day celebration that Monday, the convention will begin officially Tuesday.

Party activists and political junkies are the built-in audience for both conventions, which typically receive wall-to-wall airtime on cable news stations and about an hour of prime time each night on the broadcast networks. But reaching viewers who are less politically attuned — while, more importantly, influencing how they vote in the presidential contest — presents both a puzzle and an opportunity for organizers.

“Conventions are the first time many voters pay attention, so they play a useful role in getting people thinking about the general election,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Fordham University and a scholar of party conventions. “They offer the opportunity to present the nominees in the most human and likable format possible. It’s a unique opportunity for the parties to do that before a national audience.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said his city was preparing for an event that would bring unprecedented attention.

“We’re a city that has hosted four Super Bowls, but hosting a major international political event is the biggest thing we’ve ever undertaken by a long stretch,” Buckhorn said in an interview.

Recent conventions have had their share of memorable moments, from Palin’s red-meat speech in 2008 to Obama’s similarly star-making appearance at the Democratic conclave in 2004. The 2000 Democratic nominee, Al Gore, gave audiences an eyeful when he grabbed his wife, Tipper, for a lengthy kiss on the convention stage.

Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, will enjoy his widest national exposure yet in Tampa. But it’s still a far cry from the suspense generated at conventions in the past, where parties actually selected their nominees.

For that kind of drama, you have to go back to 1980, when President Jimmy Carter fought back a serious challenge from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy at the Democratic convention in New York. Kennedy pressed for a vote releasing delegates from their commitment to Carter — a nail-biting exercise that played out on national TV.

These days, lacking that element of surprise, the parties use their conventions primarily to frame their nominees in a positive light and establish a deeper connection with voters.

“You can create spectacle with fireworks, sets or fancy music. But what you hope viewers take away is emotion,” said Don Mischer, who produced the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. “Emotion is what grabs people and makes it memorable. It also keeps them from flipping away.”

In Tampa and Charlotte this year, organizers promise their conventions will offer both compelling pictures and a sophisticated interactive experience suited for the social media age. They’re also trading jibes over what to expect from the respective gatherings.

Republican convention spokesman James Davis said viewers weary of the limping economy will be eager to tune into the GOP gathering.

“People are as engaged as they have ever been in politics right now because of the devastation they are feeling across the country. It’s breathing new life and excitement into our convention,” Davis said. “In Charlotte, you have an incumbent with a track record. Tampa offers something fresh and something new and a vision for moving forward.”

Democratic convention spokeswoman Kristie Greco said the Charlotte gathering offered a more user-friendly experience than Republicans are promising — from first lady Michelle Obama’s email to supporters in 2010 announcing the convention’s location, to a family-oriented picnic the night before the convention starts for anyone who wants to participate.

“In the past, the goal was to get the message out through key voices in prime time. That’s the formula Republicans are following today,” Greco said. “For us, the experience has evolved from broadcasting a message to engaging people in a conversation. It’s not good enough anymore to make a statement from a podium.”

Both sides are promising a robust online presence, including Facebook and Twitter pages and streaming video designed for smartphones and other digital devices. “People don’t watch TV the way they did even four years ago,” Greco said.

But ultimately, experts say, the conventions will be successful if the nominees can leave viewers with an enduring positive message, both through pictures and words.

“Obama needs to convey a more active sense that he’s a leader and that he’s strong. The political convention is not a time to take shots at Bain Capital,” Mischer said, referring to the private equity firm Romney once headed. “Romney needs to get more specific about how he would implement his vision. And he needs three or four catchphrases people can latch onto.”

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Associated Press researcher Julie Bell contributed to this report.

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Follow Beth Fouhy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bfouhy

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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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3 Responses to Mission impossible? Turning a political convention into exciting TV

  1. Sandy Price

    August 23, 2012 at 9:59 am

    These conventions are very exciting to me. I have attended several and love the comments made by others who are not in front of a camera. I was born and indoctrinated as a Fiscal Republican nearly 80 ago and I had to pay close attention to the inner changes from those early days to the elections following WW2. Korea and Vietnam really screwed up the two parties as no one in charge of either party could tell the truth about what was happening in D.C.

    Over the years I’ve wandered all over the third parties searching for some semblance of the GOP. It began to settle into the truth with two Bush Presidents. Neither of these men understood what had been so attractive about the GOP since the end of the Civil War.

    It was so simple that American Values came from individual freedoms. Over the years the voters stood up against the controlled legislation against women and minorities and instead added a demand for religious legislation.

    I have attended several conventions with the last one seeing the Texas Delegation storming out when Jim Kolby (Congressman from Texas) and a strong Republican, spoke. Jim was gay and when I saw this demonstration I knew my last vote for any Republican had been cast at that Primary.

    From that terrible day, the GOP got only worse. Now I watch these RNC conventions to see how much further these terrible people will go to destroy not my Party but my Nation,.

  2. Wayne K Dolik

    August 23, 2012 at 11:11 am

    They might abandon the whole thing for HARP and bad weather. No?

  3. Sandy Price

    August 23, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    It was just announced by Marsha Blackburn that the Platform will be announced on Monday that there will be a new section during the Convention of announcing an Amendment to the Constitution banning all forms of Abortion without exception.

    This explains why this new way of discussing abortions was brought by Paul Ryan using a new approach to abortion. This nonsense that the platform is normally ignored is a flat lie. These Republicans are determined to take over the House and Senate with pro-lifers no matter what the people want or say.

    The intention of pushing this Amendment will be possible when Democrats will not be able to vote. This is last chance the Evangelicals have to force their religion into our Constitution. I was told 8 years ago that I should never claim to have been a Republican because I am not and never have been a Christian. I have no doubt that Romney is up to his ass in this plan. If he backs down he will not be inaugurated.

    I saw this coming but Paul Ryan confirmed it with his inability to stand firm on anything.