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As Democrats Kick Off Their Convention, How 1 Network Is Handling It


So put a hold on inflating all of those balloons. Don't even bother dressing up as Uncle Sam on stilts. The political conventions are typically made-for-TV affairs, but this year they are only on TV. And that is actually posing a stiff challenge for television executives. As Democrats kick off their convention today, NPR's David Folkenflik takes a look at how one network is handling this.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Political conventions allow the parties to define campaign messages, yet they rarely make real news. Still, there have been memorable moments.


JOHN CHANCELLOR: This is John Chancellor, somewhere in custody.

PRESIDENT GEORGE H W BUSH: Read my lips - no new taxes.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America.


FOLKENFLIK: That's NBC's John Chancellor being hauled out of a Republican convention hall by police on live TV in 1964, a future president making a promise he'd regret in 1988 and a young Democratic state senator with his eyes on the prize in 2004.

This month will offer unconventional conventions. The Democrats are intending to do pretty much everything remotely on camera. The Republicans? Unclear. President Trump is talking about addressing the convention from the White House, though that does seem to break federal law.

CATHERINE KIM: I'm hoping for the element of surprise (laughter). I really am.

FOLKENFLIK: Catherine Kim is the global head of digital news for NBC and MSNBC.

KIM: Are they going to aim for intimacy because they may be all on video conferences and Zoom calls? And what does creativity look like in terms of producing that programming?

FOLKENFLIK: The challenge facing the parties equally affects all network TV executives, who rely on political conventions to draw in summertime viewers and showcase their own stars. So we turned to three key figures at NBC as a way of illuminating the universal dilemma - how to turn videoconferencing into must-see TV. Here's top executive Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News.

NOAH OPPENHEIM: I think it actually gives us an opportunity to kind of break some of the old habits.

FOLKENFLIK: Better to focus, Oppenheim says, on giving viewers firm information on which they can base their decisions to vote.

OPPENHEIM: Let's make this the year of substance over spectacle - right? - in lieu of the spectacle of that large room and the balloon drop and the quirky delegate that you pull off to have a conversation.

FOLKENFLIK: A speaker droning on? Given there's no sweeping footage of a convention crowd to cut to, maybe return to studio to have Chuck Todd breaking down what's at stake in the election with NBC's reporters. Over at MSNBC, weeknight host Joy-Ann Reid is preparing for what's ahead and reminiscing about covering earlier conventions in 2012 and 2016.

JOY-ANN REID: When we were in the convention, we're in the show. Like, we're literally feet away from where you can see the people walking, and you can talk about the way it looks and smells, and you see it.

FOLKENFLIK: MSNBC will feed its heavily anti-Trump audience with generous servings of Reid, Rachel Maddow and Nicole Wallace, a Trump critic who left the Republican fold and gained a following. Again, Joy-Ann Reid.

REID: Now we're going to be watching it on TV, kind of like the viewers watching it on TV. So I feel like we're almost going to be - we're going to be the commentary that you're probably also giving in your living room, you know? (Laughter).

FOLKENFLIK: If you think of it as a reality show, it's more "Big Brother" than "Survivor" - no stunning setting, everyone caught on camera, isolated in their own rooms. Reid says both parties are trapped in this reality with us, and she suggests they'll create a show worth watching. Their immediate futures depend on it.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.