Between 5 and 6 p.m. on Wednesday, as Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino spoke to the delegates at the Democratic convention, it was no easy task to find them on TV.
On MSNBC, Chris Matthews was imploring comedian Darrell Hammond to impersonate Bill Clinton. The motormouths of The Five were chitchatting on FNC. CNN staged a debate between two political has-beens, former Govs. Bill Richardson and John Sununu.
And these are the networks “covering” the convention. Tough luck, Tom and Diana. Catch you on C-SPAN.
Campaigns craft convention programs with Darwinian rigor. A half-dozen marquee names get the magic 10-11 p.m. slots, when the broadcast networks join their cable cousins to build the biggest national audience. Everyone else battles obscurity.
In the peak 10 p.m. hour of the GOP convention last Thursday, some 30 million people watched Mitt Romney’s speech. The audience in the same hour on other convention nights can be 10 million fewer, and viewership was no doubt pared further last night when NBC chose to broadcast the opening game of the 2012 NFL season between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys.
And that’s the magic hour. In the early evening, the audience can be meager indeed, and slots are reserved for congressional leaders or those who represent demographic groups or interest blocs (women, labor, business, gays) but don’t have huge national followings. This is also where pols such as former speakers Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi end up. Protocol insists that they be recognized, but they are not universally popular.
It’s an honor to speak, but the math can humble those consigned to the 8 or 9 p.m. hour, which is prime time in just parts of the country. In the 7 p.m. slot, when House Minority Leader Pelosi spoke, the audience can typically shrink to 4 million—or even fewer when, as happened, MSNBC chose not to carry her speech. And don’t feel too bad, Diana and Tom. Some of the cable channels that didn’t carry your speeches had fewer than a million viewers at 5:30 p.m.
So some of the best stuff goes unseen, at least by the audience at home. One of the most evocative appearances at the GOP convention was made by Ted and Pat Oparowski, who told the crowd how Romney sat by the bedside of their 14-year-old cancer-stricken son David, at one point helping him draft a will to distribute his skateboard, model rockets, and fishing gear to friends.
“David also helped us plan his funeral. He wanted to be buried in his Boy Scout uniform,” said Pat Oparowski. “He wanted Mitt to pronounce his eulogy. Mitt was there to honor that request.”
Conservative commentators gnashed their teeth, asking why the Oparowskis told their story in the relative obscurity of 8:00 while a certain Hollywood legend duked it out with an empty chair in prime time. The Oparowskis’ simple tale, told with no artifice by the aging firefighter and his wife, did more to humanize Romney, some said, then anything they had seen all year.
Much the same could be said about the Democratic gathering on Tuesday, when Stacy Lihn’s story of how President Obama’s health care reform law allows her family to afford medical care for their invalid baby girl Zoe went unseen by most Americans.
“Like so many moms with sick children, I shed tears, and I could breathe easier knowing we have that net below us to catch us if we fall,” Lihn said, with her husband and two cuddly daughters by her side. “But we’re also scared. Governor Romney repealing health care reform is something we worry about literally ever day.”
Gripping stuff. And you can see it on YouTube.