A well-produced, moving, often inspirational new summer television special aired last week, filled with tears, laughter, passion and pathos.
It was called the Democratic National Convention. And that’s the problem.
The convention — radically altered to conform with our COVID-dominated times — was the final triumph of TV values in the world of politics and news: feelings over facts, images over words, personality over policy.
Any political event that makes a star out of Rhode Island fried calamari is not trying to dazzle voters with succinct prescriptions and detailed remedies. Even the Washington Post’s vaunted “Fact-Checker” column bemoaned the fact that it was offered few facts to actually check over the course of last week.
In many ways, the biggest “news” coming out of this hermetically sealed adventure in programming was the program itself: how it shifted and adjusted the convention format in the face of a pandemic, using internet video technology as a replacement for human contact.
As a TV producer and executive, I genuinely admire what the DNC pulled off. The four nights had an intimacy and sobriety that reflected the national mood. Zoom laptop cameras took us inside the homes of real people across the country, exposing us up-close to voices and experiences typically drowned out in the roar of a convention hall. These people gave the event some of its most searing moments and soaring stories.
But it was, in the end, all about — only about — story-telling. Like any good show, it delivered only the narrative its writers and producers wanted you to see.
Long ago, political conventions became willing hostages to television and the medium’s need to elevate legend and image over everything else. Even with that, conventions still left open the thin possibility of actual news breaking through — protesters shouting outside the arena, dissenters shouting inside the hall. In the current political climate, you could imagine some loud voices working very hard to be recognized at a more normal convention.
But there was, literally, no room for any of that this time — no demonstrations in the streets and no roaming reporters with their headsets and microphones looking to uncover trouble on the convention floor.
Journalists were left to “analyze” this event on its own entertainment terms, as if it were in fact a special summer series. Everyone commented on performances and atmospherics; there was little else to talk about. Fox News was forced into the role of a grumpy Roger Ebert, handing thumbs down to various cast members, directing choices or set designs.
Make no mistake: This is not just a Democratic Party problem. There will be more made-for-TV evenings this week as the GOP unveils its COVID-19 convention. Some key things will be different, of course — the tone angry instead of embracing; in place of grieving, we’ll get grievance. The Post’s fact-checkers will no doubt find themselves with a lot more to do. If the Democrats presented America with a very special episode of “This Is Us,” look to the Republicans for a revival of “Law and Order,” maybe even “Seal Team” and “S.W.A.T.” But, whatever the show, count on the same complete surrender to TV values and imperatives.
Or maybe not. Unlike the Democrats, the GOP has a wild card in its deck, especially when surrounded by klieg lights and cameras: Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE. A firm believer in his own improvisational skills, he’s reluctant to stick to any script. Producers hate actors like that; they force endless retakes, triggering union overtime and busting production budgets. But you put up with it when that actor is also the star. He’s the reason people tune in. Everyone on the set knows this.
Still, based on poll numbers, ratings for The Donald Show have gone soft — at least for now. Nervous producers and studio execs might want to take back control and do things their way. Over the coming four days, that could generate something which Hollywood gently dubs “creative differences.”
That tension and stress just might add some unpredictability to the formula. It could make the Republican convention more like “The Real World” — the kind of unscripted show worth tuning into because anything could happen.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.