Convention coverage: Web, cable pick up slack

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In a microcosm of the changing media landscape, America turned for news of the Democratic National Convention not just to the broadcast TV networks, but to a host of splintered media options: niche cable TV networks, public broadcasting networks, radio, newspapers, and, in great numbers, the Internet.

The major networks saw their convention ratings slide precipitously from the 2000 election. On July 28, Walt Disney Co.'s ABC posted a 2.9 rating in the 10 to 11 p.m. hour, down from 3.1 on Aug. 16, 2000, according to Nielsen Media Research. CBS fell to a 2.8 rating from 3.6 and NBC's skittered a full point to 3.1.

Because two networks, ABC and NBC, did not run advertising on its coverage July 29, Nielsen did not break out ratings by network for the final day. But it said that the convention drew a 14.3 rating among all the major cable and network TV outlets over the four days, as compared to a 15.3 rating in 2000.

`greed'

The Center for Digital Democracy called the lack of network coverage "greed," noting that stations will net more than $1 billion from political advertising this year. "The networks want to run as much of their regular prime-time schedule as possible to harvest profits from advertising," the group said in a press release.

"The networks should cover more of the convention," said Peggy Wilhide, communications director for the convention. "It's an important part of the political process."

But she said voters experienced the convention anyway. "If you are watching MSNBC, MTV, Comedy Central, Black Entertainment Television, or Telemundo ... our message is getting out."

Indeed, cable news networks' convention coverage recorded higher ratings than four years ago. During the 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. time frame July 28, CNN posted a 1.5 rating, Nielsen said, up from 1.1 four years ago. Fox climbed from 0.3 in 2000 to a 1.2 rating, and MSNBC to 0.8.

The broadcast networks' decision not to air gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions opened the door to online media outlets to provide all-day coverage, said Carlos Silva, senior VP-America Online's AOL News and Sports. While neither Nielsen/NetRatings nor the online news outlets break down traffic on the convention areas of their sites, traffic on news areas in general was strong. On July 27, Yahoo! News had 1.8 million unique visitors; MSNBC had 1.3 million; CNN, 1.3 million; and AOL News & Weather had 1 million.

if you can't beat `em...

Rather than compete with the TV networks, Yahoo! News, MSNBC, CNN and AOL News & Weather partnered with them for convention coverage. AOL, for instance, presented an interactive streaming video wrapped around an ABC-produced TV interview show with hosts like Sam Donaldson and guests such as Teresa Heinz Kerry. Users e-mailed their questions to guests, took polls and discussed the issues in chat rooms.

Both the network TV and online networks, however, had trouble drawing advertisers. "They are afraid that there's an issue that might come up, like gay marriage, which will somehow tarnish their brand,"said Charlie Tillinghast, general manager, MSNBC.com.

CNN.com sold ads online as a package with TV. Samsung and Chrysler are sponsoring the "entire election" cycle, said Greg D'Alba, chief operating officer, CNN sales and marketing.

The Republicans are taking note of the diverse media options. Christine Iverson, press secretary for the Republican National Committee, said, "We will reach out aggressively to all forms of media." She said the committee last week sent out a new Internet video, which claims Sen. John Kerry repeatedly switched positions, to 8 million people-more people, she said, than watched the Democratic convention.

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