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Jewish World Review July 28, 2000 / 25 Tamuz, 5760

Roger Simon

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"Sanitized" political conventions ruin politics -- DON HEWITT, at 77 and executive producer of "60 Minutes," one of the most successful shows in the history of television, has had a chance to learn quite a lot about how TV covers political conventions.

His first convention was in 1948, and since then he has come to a conclusion or two.

"Today, they really mean nothing," he told me. "I always wondered why we didn't charge both national parties commercial rates to plug their product."

This year, TV is cutting back on its coverage even further. Forget about gavel to gavel. That went out years ago. Now networks would rather bring you re-runs or exhibition football than bring you a political convention.

It is not all television's fault. Political reform had something to do with it.

"There were primaries back in 1948, but they didn't determine the nominee," Hewitt said. "The minute primaries became the primary way of naming the candidate, conventions lost their appeal."

Once upon a time, people did not really know who was going to be the Democratic or Republican nominee until the delegates voted at the convention. This process sometimes took dozens of ballots.

In the old days, convention delegates were controlled by party bosses, elected officials, "favorite son" candidates and even media barons. And votes were horsetraded behind closed doors and in the infamous smoke-filled rooms.

But the last multi-ballot convention was in 1952, and today delegates are chosen by primary voters in the open and not by the bosses.

So we know who the nominee is going to be months ahead of time -- you have heard of George W. Bush and Al Gore, haven't you? -- and so the mystery (and excitement) was removed from the conventions.

The parties also wanted the conventions "sanitized" so the best possible image could be broadcast to the nation. Controversy was out and harmony was in, which is why the Republican Party tried to ban the word "abortion" at its convention in 1996.

Delegates today are very conscious of the fact they are constantly on TV -- even though some of them choose to wear large wedges of cheese on their heads -- and everyone is supposed to be on good behavior.

"By 1952, CBS was running a school teaching politicians how to act on TV," Hewitt said. "When I heard that I said: 'What are you doing! The whole appeal of this is to watch a guy pick his nose or scratch his crotch!' The parties suddenly realized that all of America was privy to their shenanigans, the donneybrooks. The cut and dried stuff they tried to sell to America was wallpaper. We weren't interested in that. Two delegates taking a swing at each other was good TV. The parties realized that we were showing what they didn't want shown."

And so conventions got scripted and TV lost interest, and now the Internet is rushing to fill the gap, with some dot.coms saying they are going to be bringing us the conventions not just gavel to gavel, but 24-hours a day. What are they going to have on 24 hours a day? I have no idea. And they probably don't either.

Will conventions be more exciting merely because they are on a computer screen instead of a TV screen?

Or is excitement over-rated. Maybe the public really wants to tune into conventions not because they are entertaining, but because they are informative.

As for Hewitt, he not only won't be at the conventions, he probably won't be watching either.

"It is not a news event any more," he said. "It's just a large commercial for the Democrats and Republicans."

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate