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C-SPAN Hits the Road

At the same time that America’s major broadcast networks have decided to scale back their live coverage of both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, Capitol Hill’s own television network is feverishly working to ramp up its access to and coverage of the two weeks in which America’s political parties put themselves on display.

While ABC, CBS and NBC have announced that they will carry only three hours each of live programming from the Democratic and Republican conventions, political junkies and unlucky Capitol Hill staffers who missed the cut to go to Boston and New York can look forward to roughly 100 hours of live coverage of each convention on C-SPAN.

With about a third of the network’s staff going to each convention, “the political conventions are to C-SPAN what the Olympics are to NBC Sports,” said C-SPAN’s Programming Vice President Terry Murphy. “That means all of our programming platforms — the C-SPAN television networks, C-SPAN.org and C-SPAN Radio — will be dedicated to providing the nation’s political junkies a front-row seat to the political events happening this summer in Boston and New York.”

According to a Wall Street Journal report, the last time the major network convention coverage hit 100 hours was in 1976 and coverage hours have been steadily dropping each year. And, with conventions increasingly becoming more scripted and any sort of surprise or drama having been taken out of the equation, the major networks seem to have become less obliged to cover anything other than the major speeches.

This year, ABC, CBS and NBC will air one hour each of coverage on three convention nights (all three have opted out of covering Tuesday night of the Democratic convention and Monday night of the Republican convention), and all three are handing off most of their coverage to cable affiliates and Internet feeds.

“From a communications standpoint it’s important that we understand the changing media landscape … and one of the things you have to take into consideration is the decline in network coverage over the past few election cycles,” Republican National Convention Press Secretary Leonardo Alcivar said. “That does prohibit our ability to deliver the president’s message.”

For example, Alcivar lamented the possibility that the networks might not carry first lady Laura Bush’s planned speech. “But our role is to adapt,” he said.

“Americans are no longer as dependent on the networks for news as they might have been before. … There are discussions ongoing with alternative news outlets and with the increasing number of cable news programs that more and more Americans are turning to,” Alcivar added.

And for the past five election cycles C-SPAN’s convention coverage has been steadily increasing to cater to that growing number of Americans.

One major addition for the 2004 conventions is that C-SPAN’s feeds will be broadcast live on its counterpart stations in Britain, Canada, Germany and France. As such, viewers from BBC Parliamentary, CPAC, Phoenix TV and Public Sénat will not only be able to watch the entire proceedings, but “it’ll add a whole ’nother dimension to the call-in programs,” C-SPAN political editor Steve Scully said.

This week, C-SPAN is already covering news conferences and host committee activities from Boston. Once the conventions get under way, pre- and post-game coverage will include segments from C-SPAN video journalists who will take hand-held cameras around Boston and New York to give viewers a feel for the scene outside the convention halls.

Along with gavel-to-gavel convention-week coverage on radio, TV and the Internet, C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” will also be airing each morning from both Boston and New York. And for convention-goers looking for a good place to catch some C-SPAN programming while learning about the public affairs network, one of the two 45-foot C-SPAN school buses, which can also double as mobile production studios, is already in Boston this week educating Bostonians and visitors about the work C-SPAN does. Boston’s Prudential Center will host the C-SPAN school bus at its main entrance during the convention.

“We want to take people who are watching C-SPAN to these cities and see what it’s like in Boston and New York,” Scully said. “Our whole goal is to take people to the conventions as if you were there.”

And C-SPAN’s multimedia approach that is less reliant on network coverage seems to be the wave of the future in the eyes of convention organizers.

“Our approach [to getting convention coverage] is really a combination of new and emerging technology — Internet or otherwise — and a return to old fashioned efforts that include things just as elementary as ensuring that local newspapers and local television stations have greater access,” Alcivar said. “To the degree that we have adapted to a changing landscape and network coverage … we are confident in our ability to communicate the president’s message to all Americans.”