Parties' challenge: Make conventions exciting TV

Associated Press
In this Sept. 4, 2008, photo, balloons fall on the floor as Republican presidential nominee John McCain is joined by his wife, Cindy, his family and his running mate, Sarah Palin, and her family, not pictured, on stage after his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. Viewer interest in the 2012 Republican and Democratic national conventions is still unclear. With the parties' quadrennial presidential nominating gatherings fast approaching, organizers on both sides are bedeviled by a similar challenge: how to ensure TV viewer interest in the multiday affairs, which threaten to be largely predictable spectacles nearly devoid of suspense. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Patriotic music? Check. Balloon drop? Check. Sign-waving delegates? Check. Viewer interest in this summer's Republican and Democratic national conventions? Still unclear.

With the parties' quadrennial presidential nominating gatherings fast approaching, organizers on both sides are bedeviled by a similar challenge: how to raise TV viewer interest in the multiday affairs, which threaten to be largely predictable spectacles nearly devoid of suspense.

The conventions were a ratings hit in 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama became the first black presidential nominee for a major party and Sarah Palin made her national debut as Republican John McCain's running mate. This year's gatherings promise fewer gee-whiz moments, with both party's nominees long settled and polls showing public confidence in politics and government at a record low.

Republicans are set to meet for four days in Tampa, Fla., beginning Monday to confer their party's nomination on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Despite all the detailed planning, there could be a surprise twist: Weather forecasters say Tropical Storm Isaac poses a possible threat to Florida as the GOP gathers there.

The Democrats will convene Sept. 3-6 in Charlotte, N.C., in hopes of giving Obama another term. After a Labor Day celebration that Monday, the convention will begin officially Tuesday.

Party activists and political junkies are the built-in audience for both conventions, which typically receive wall-to-wall airtime on cable news stations and about an hour of prime time each night on the broadcast networks. But reaching viewers who are less politically attuned — while, more importantly, influencing how they vote in the presidential contest — presents both a puzzle and an opportunity for organizers.

"Conventions are the first time many voters pay attention, so they play a useful role in getting people thinking about the general election," said Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Fordham University and a scholar of party conventions. "They offer the opportunity to present the nominees in the most human and likable format possible. It's a unique opportunity for the parties to do that before a national audience."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said his city was preparing for an event that would bring unprecedented attention.

"We're a city that has hosted four Super Bowls, but hosting a major international political event is the biggest thing we've ever undertaken by a long stretch," Buckhorn said in an interview.

Recent conventions have had their share of memorable moments, from Palin's red-meat speech in 2008 to Obama's similarly star-making appearance at the Democratic conclave in 2004. The 2000 Democratic nominee, Al Gore, gave audiences an eyeful when he grabbed his wife, Tipper, for a lengthy kiss on the convention stage.

Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, will enjoy his widest national exposure yet in Tampa. But it's still a far cry from the suspense generated at conventions in the past, where parties actually selected their nominees.

For that kind of drama, you have to go back to 1980, when President Jimmy Carter fought back a serious challenge from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy at the Democratic convention in New York. Kennedy pressed for a vote releasing delegates from their commitment to Carter — a nail-biting exercise that played out on national TV.

These days, lacking that element of surprise, the parties use their conventions primarily to frame their nominees in a positive light and establish a deeper connection with voters.

"You can create spectacle with fireworks, sets or fancy music. But what you hope viewers take away is emotion," said Don Mischer, who produced the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. "Emotion is what grabs people and makes it memorable. It also keeps them from flipping away."

In Tampa and Charlotte this year, organizers promise their conventions will offer both compelling pictures and a sophisticated interactive experience suited for the social media age. They're also trading jibes over what to expect from the respective gatherings.

Republican convention spokesman James Davis said viewers weary of the limping economy will be eager to tune into the GOP gathering.

"People are as engaged as they have ever been in politics right now because of the devastation they are feeling across the country. It's breathing new life and excitement into our convention," Davis said. "In Charlotte, you have an incumbent with a track record. Tampa offers something fresh and something new and a vision for moving forward."

Democratic convention spokeswoman Kristie Greco said the Charlotte gathering offered a more user-friendly experience than Republicans are promising — from first lady Michelle Obama's email to supporters in 2010 announcing the convention's location, to a family-oriented picnic the night before the convention starts for anyone who wants to participate.

"In the past, the goal was to get the message out through key voices in prime time. That's the formula Republicans are following today," Greco said. "For us, the experience has evolved from broadcasting a message to engaging people in a conversation. It's not good enough anymore to make a statement from a podium."

Both sides are promising a robust online presence, including Facebook and Twitter pages and streaming video designed for smartphones and other digital devices. "People don't watch TV the way they did even four years ago," Greco said.

But ultimately, experts say, the conventions will be successful if the nominees can leave viewers with an enduring positive message, both through pictures and words.

"Obama needs to convey a more active sense that he's a leader and that he's strong. The political convention is not a time to take shots at Bain Capital," Mischer said, referring to the private equity firm Romney once headed. "Romney needs to get more specific about how he would implement his vision. And he needs three or four catchphrases people can latch onto."

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Associated Press researcher Julie Bell contributed to this report.

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Follow Beth Fouhy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bfouhy

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