TV Saturday: Network heads and viewers, the political conventions are largely a mystery

NEW YORK (AP) — Weeks before political conventions, television networks would typically be confirming hotel reservations, booking experts and pounding the last nails in temporary studios for their top anchors.

There’s nothing normal about 2020, of course.

News executives are adjusting on the fly to nominating conventions for President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden that will be primarily virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic. Much of what is planned is still a mystery, particularly for the Republicans.

“As the parties have changed plans they’ve kept us informed as they’ve been going along,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “But the conventions have been a moving target all along.”

Trump’s decision last week to abandon hope for more traditional convention events in Jacksonville, Florida, has clarified some matters. The Democratic convention will be Aug. 17-20, with Republicans a week later, Aug. 24-27.

Networks expect Democrats to host a “mega video wall” event, with feeds of speakers from across the country. The Democrats have promised two hours of programming for each of the four nights, while the only sure thing for Republicans is Trump’s acceptance speech.

“It’s not going to be a real convention,” said PBS “NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff. “It’s going to be a program they produce.”

For the most part, networks will station the bulk of their on-air talent in New York or Washington and use the control rooms there. Fox News’ Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, who are booked for the Democrats’ convention site in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are currently the only network anchors expected to travel.

Skeleton crews are expected in Milwaukee and also in Charlotte, North Carolina, where some Republican events are being held, both for safety and the expectation that there won’t be much news in either location.

ABC News is assigning shadow crews to each city able to fill in on a moment’s notice if anyone on the first crew tests positive for COVID-19, said Marc Burstein, senior executive producer.

Without having to house and feed hundreds of employees in each city, or set up temporary control rooms and studios, networks can save a significant amount of money. Convention spending could be down by as much as two-thirds, said Michael Clemente, a news consultant who helped plan convention coverage at ABC and Fox News.

“Absolutely it would be a cost-savings,” Burstein said. “But it’s not something we’re doing to cut costs.”

In recent years, ABC, CBS and NBC would generally devote an hour a night in prime time to the conventions, maybe more with the presidential acceptance speech on Thursday. Cable networks can talk all night. Expect something similar this time, although those plans are still uncertain.

“Really, it just becomes a prime-time event and you have to hear what they’re going to provide you with to decide where you’re going to go from there,” said Cherie Grzech, Fox News vice president of politics and the Washington bureau.

Between COVID-19 and social protests, conventions likely won’t be the only news during the two weeks, either.

“This year presents an opportunity for both the parties and the networks to throw out the traditional playbook of what conventions look like,” said Noah Oppenheim, NBC News president.

At CBS News, the uncertainty emphasizes the importance of focusing on issues that animate different views of the nation’s future, said Susan Zirinsky, CBS News president.

“We’re at a precipice in history when the country has been cracked open and issues are quite a bit more clear than if we were in a regular campaign where we would be distracted by something or other,” she said. “This puts a responsibility onto the parties and it allows us to step back and not be distracted by the delegate from Pennsylvania who’s been there for 45 years.

“I look forward to these conventions in terms of being able to listen to the voices of America and reveal America to itself,” Zirinsky said.

During a summer in which news programming has dominated television ratings, at least one network executive wouldn’t be surprised if their network devotes more time than usual to the conventions, not less.

Despite the mystery of what the conventions are going to be, news executives anticipate a high level of interest among viewers.

“We’re at one of the most important elections in modern history, and there’s kind of a captive audience,” Zirinsky said. “People aren’t taking big summer vacations. People are doing more homebound things.”

With fewer traditions to adhere to, networks also expect this year could auger changes in how convention coverage looks in the future. For instance, many news executives every four years must argue to corporate overseers about the need for large budgets for conventions. What happens if the much cheaper coverage is successful this year?

What if parties become intrigued by the idea of events across the country instead of being tied to one city?

“You will see conventions in a very different way moving forward based on what is happening in 2020,” Fox’s Grzech said.

Others, like CNN’s Feist, question whether decades of tradition will really be swept away because the coronavirus forced a different approach this year.

Either way, that challenge puts an enormous amount of pressure on Ricky Kirshner, who’s producing the convention for Democrats, and the Trump campaign. The Democrats announced Wednesday that they will partner with Endavo Media and Communications on an app that will show convention programming.

Do the Democrats and Republicans have television producers in-house who can pull it off?

“I’ll tell you in a couple of weeks,” Feist said.