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Conventions To Draw Fewer Viewers Than in Past Years, Survey Shows

By David M. Debartolo, Crimson Staff Writer

The number of people who don't plan to watch the upcoming political conventions has nearly doubled from the number who didn't watch in 1996, according to a recent poll by the Vanishing Voter Project at the Kennedy School of Government.

Four years ago, only 23 percent of voters said they did not plan to watch any of the GOP convention, while 21 percent said they did not plan to watch the Democratic convention.

This year, however, those numbers have skyrocketed to 43 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

In a related poll released Wednesday, only 19 percent of voters nationwide were able to say when the GOP convention would be held.

"There seems to be less interest in this election campaign compared to past campaigns," said Tami S. Buhr, the research coordinator for the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

"This is consistent with a growing and continuing disconnect between the people and democratic politics and process," said Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter project, in a press release.

The conventions will also receive less network attention this year than they have in the past. ABC and CBS will each carry five hours of live primetime convention coverage, while NBC will televise only the last two nights for two and a half hours of total coverage.

"The convention audience this year, as in the past, will be a combination of those viewers who went to their televisions intending to watch the convention and those viewers who turned on their sets and just happened to catch it," said Bradlee Professor of Government Thomas Patterson in a press release.

"Both types of viewers will be fewer in numbers this year. Fewer people know enough to tune in, and fewer will just happen to see it because the networks have cut back on their broadcast hours," he said.

The conventions have steadily drawn lower and lower audiences in recent years. In 1976, the average household watched more than 11 hours of convention coverage. In 1996, however, the average household watched fewer than four hours.

Buhr said that the reduced attention to these political events could have unfortunate consequences.

"It's definitely a concern that a fragmented audience and a fragmented culture have created a greater and greater divide" between politicians and the public, Buhr said.

"Its particularly a concern if you look at the younger generation," she said. "Those who do [form an interest in politics] will be much more of an elite class."

Patterson provided a similar explanation.

"It's getting harder and harder for any one program to draw a huge audience because there are so many choices available to the viewer," Patterson said.

"The effect is particularly pronounced in the realm of public affairs. In an earlier age, millions of Americans often came together at one time to watch a political event. Now it happens much less often," he said.

Al Ortiz, an executive producer for CBS News involved with the network's scheduling of the conventions, justified the reduced coverage, saying the election process has changed over time.

"The drama and the contest are pretty much out of the way by Super Tuesday," he said.

"The parties have engineered this so that the first two nights of the conventions are more display, more theatrical, not breaking news like it once was," Ortiz said. "But rather than consign it to no coverage, we felt it would be responsible to cover it some."

As for the lack of public awareness of the GOP convention date, Ortiz laid the blame squarely on the public.

"It's the public's fault for declining interest in it," he said. "If you read a newspaper occasionally, you know when these things are happening."

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