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An unconventional production

Lagging TV ratings spur fresh approach

Faced with sagging television ratings, organizers of the Democratic National Convention are promising a fresh look for the big event, with remote feeds from around the country, a giant multimedia screen behind the main stage, and a few smaller podiums located at several spots inside the FleetCenter to create fresh camera angles for television coverage.

Ricky Kirshner, the convention's producer, says planners are focusing on "creating an environment" inside the FleetCenter that will persuade television networks to cover the proceedings.

With conventions largely devoid of drama and suspense these days, they're counting on a lively, interactive feel to make a tightly scripted event seem spontaneous.

"I'm not sure anymore that we really make news, because you know who the nominee's going to be," Kirshner said. "We are challenged with coming up with a creative way for people to be interested. . . . You try to do something that's never been seen before."

Engaging the American public and the networks has developed into a monumental task for convention organizers. The combined ABC, CBS, and NBC coverage for each convention dropped from about 20 hours in 1992 to just 11 hours in 2000, while ratings dipped by a third over the same period.

Kirshner, who has been involved in producing every Democratic convention since 1992, said he is bringing some new ideas to the table. Testimonials from voters around the country will break up the monotony of speechifying. As many as four videos and graphics will stream at once on the screen behind the stage.

Footage of historic places in the Boston area -- including the downtown Boston site of the nation's first public school and Revolutionary War battlegrounds in Lexington and Concord -- will be piped into the FleetCenter, and to television viewers nationwide. Organizers are even discussing ways of injecting life into the dull business of platform discussion and roll-call votes during the normally mundane first two days of the convention.

"The challenge is to give them something to cover," Kirshner said.

Kirshner has not met with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry. But since Kerry locked up the nomination in early March, convention planning has proceeded with the input of the Kerry campaign.

Gimmicks inside and outside the convention hall may not be enough to reverse the long-term slippage in news coverage, however. Andrew Tyndall, who publishes a weekly newsletter that monitors network news, said the broadcast networks tend to cover conventions based on expected news content, not entertainment value.

"Since these are set-piece news events, the networks' decision about how newsworthy it will be is made in advance, based on a judgment about what happened four years earlier," said Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report. "Very little happened in 2000, so 2004 should continue the downward trend."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said the networks are only interested in news, not flashy productions. But she said the Democrats' strategy may work in attracting viewers to cable outlets. She applauded their efforts, as well as those of Republicans, to make the convention more like other television events, with multiple camera angles and more interesting things to see.

"The broadcast news outlets are looking for news, not staging," Jamieson said. "But if the convention is more interesting to watch, it will increase the viewership on cable. It's about time conventions started catching up with the nature of television."

Planners have ruled out one major change to the convention hall that was raised as a possibility last year. Kirshner said there won't be a theater-in-the-round-style stage, since the multiple camera stands it would require would force a space squeeze inside the FleetCenter. The Republicans have also raised that idea for their convention in New York City, but they have not yet announced a final decision.

But even if the Democrats' stage looks roughly like it has in previous conventions, Kirshner said viewers will notice a difference when it comes to the proceedings. The Democrats will seek to have their messages conveyed by "real people" across the country, he said.

"A lot of the times the politicos talk over their heads," Kirshner said. "I don't even understand it sometimes. So I figure if I can understand it, then most people can understand it."

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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