Andrew Billen - Talking heads

Television - US coverage of politics is most watchable when it takes sides

While in America the other week, I spent much time watching the coverage of the Democratic National Convention. The more I tried to like John Kerry, the more I found myself admiring the often mean, superficial, partisan way in which US television covers politics. To put it glibly, the latter is a lot more fun than the former.

The halting-then-fluent-but-sweating candidate delivered his big speech at 10pm eastern time on the Thursday. It was transmitted live by the three old net-works, with much pre-match speculation available on the cable news channels beforehand. As Kerry stood on the podium doing his thumbs-up thing, Peter Jennings, the sure-footed ABC News anchor, glossed: "This party has done everything it can. This man is now alone."

But that wasn't quite true. ABC did everything it could to bring the speech to life. When Kerry mentioned attorney general John Ashcroft's abuse of the US constitution, the network knew to cut to Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, in the audience. Kerry's quoting of Abraham Lincoln was rewarded with a live shot of the Lincoln Monument. A snipe at the Saudi royal family was accompanied by a flash to the coverage of the speech by al-Jazeera. "He delivered a good speech," concluded Jennings, but ABC's visual orchestration was a triumph. In total, the address was seen live by 24.4 million viewers, over three million more than the number who watched Al Gore give his wife, Tipper, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in 2000.

But Thursday night was the high point, the third of only three hours of live coverage granted by ABC, CBS and NBC over the week. Years ago, the networks devoted whole evenings to conventions. By turning up only for the headline acts - Clinton, Edwards, Kerry - they missed speeches by Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Ron Reagan, Teresa Heinz Kerry and Al Sharpton as well as the speech of the week, a from- the-hearter by Barack Obama, an obscure candidate for the Senate who is being talked up as America's first black president. Even on the big night, they missed much of the fun: the march on stage of Gore's "band of brothers" from Vietnam and Alexandra Kerry's story about her father giving CPR to her drowning hamster.

The question is whether the retreat of the networks matters in an age of cable, when many viewers can get all the coverage they want on CNN, MSNBC or Fox News, and even the rest can watch it on public service television. Given that it's decades since a candidate was chosen at one, nobody can pretend that conventions are exactly news any more. On the other hand, it's a good idea for the nation to get a chance to take a lingering look at its potential president. It can also be argued that without the presiding authority of the network anchors, viewers lose a sense of occasion and, perhaps, the plot. As the gifted commentator Alessandra Stanley wrote in the New York Times on Sun- day: "Political conventions are like 19th-century novels; they benefit from an omniscient narrator."

There was criticism, too, that the cable channels did not cover the convention so much as cover themselves. Kerry, when he finally arrived in Boston, complained: "The talking heads keep talking and you can't hear anything." He was not the only one to get the impression that the cable news guys saw the convention primarily as a chance to promote their increasingly bellicose stars: CNN's blustery Larry King; MSNBC's ultra-cynical Chris Matthews; Fox News's Bill O'Reilly and unbalanced left-right double act Hannity and Colmes (the liberal Alan Colmes is a milk and water affair next to the smug Sean Hannity). On the other hand, with barely a trace of disagreement being allowed on the platform over four days, where else were stations going to get their lifeblood - namely, controversy?

Watching Fox News (which still trades under its whimsical banner "Fair and Balanced") cover a Democratic convention is a bit like watching a polar bear going hunting in Africa: there's plenty of red meat around, but the environmental conditions aren't exactly favourable. In response, Fox turned itself into a beleaguered minority besieged by bloodthirsty liberals. The night after one of its reporters caused a minor storm by saying from the convention floor that he expected Teresa Heinz Kerry to burst into "Don't Cry for me Argentina", O'Reilly had on Elaine Lafferty, the editor of Ms Magazine. That she was perfectly reasonable in her objections to a news reporter comparing Mrs Kerry to Eva Peron (or Madonna) did not prevent O'Reilly whining: "The far left is looking for any excuse to bludgeon us." My guess is that he was still bruised from his run-in with Michael Moore a few days before. The normally resolute O'Reilly was silenced when Moore asked him if he would send his own child to Iraq.

But if you don't like Fox, PBS maintains a scholarly liberal tone, CNN still aims for balance (producing an excellent documentary on Kerry) and MSNBC is full of competing voices. With deft channel hopping, I constructed my own balance. The nearest that British television comes to generating this much excitement over politics is Andrew Neil's Thursday-night BBC2 chat show This Week. Maybe I'm getting so fond of the circus that I'm about to run away with it, but for the first time I began to wonder if British viewers are best served by three rolling news operations, BBC News, the ITV News Channel and Sky News, all aiming for due impartiality.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times