John McCaslin

Rather than continuing to pursue maximum profit at the expense of an informed citizenry, the major television networks, as a civic responsibility, should once again begin to cover more of the presidential-election process.

"In 2004, what formerly was gavel-to-gavel network coverage of national conventions was reduced to three hours and three speeches for each convention by ABC, CBS and NBC," says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

"In 2000, for the first time, two networks, Fox and NBC, failed to cover at least one presidential debate in favor of baseball and entertainment programming, respectively," notes Gans, who adds that the 2000 and 1996 elections had the smallest amount of political coverage on the nightly news of any since television became central in American life.

For those who argue that cable news channels pick up where networks leave off, the average prime-time viewing audience for all the cable news providers combined is about 6 million. The average prime-time audience for the major networks is upwards of 30 million viewers - five times as many Americans who tune into cable.

It's not any easier these days for the real "West Wing" to air in prime time. In fact, the office of the president seems to have lost its clout.

"Presidents can no longer command prime-time coverage for press conferences, save with respect to issues of war and terror, and must hold them in the afternoons to get three minutes on the nightly news - or risk getting no network coverage whatsoever," Gans says.

As for networks losing profits: "The networks can clearly afford to provide the public with the information they need. General Electric, the parent company of NBC, recorded a 2003 net profit of $15 billion. Disney, which owns ABC; Viacom, which owns CBS; and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which owns Fox, all netted between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion.

"A few prime-time hours of convention, election night, debate, and presidential press conference coverage would not put even a scratch on their bottom lines," he says.


Turned off by the 2004 presidential campaign?

You might try turning off your television.

"If people believe campaigns are negative, it could well be due to the fact that the news coverage of political campaigns is more negative than the campaigns themselves," reveals William Benoit, a leading expert on presidential campaigns and communications professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

John McCaslin

John McCaslin is a contributing columnist on and author of Inside The Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops, and Shenanigans from around the Nation's Capital .

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