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updated 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A TALE OF TWO HOURS

This year's network convention coverage is, to put it drastically, an American tragedy. For the first time since 1952 all three networks are not even attempting gavel-to-gavel reporting—just two scheduled hours of prime time per night, plus chunks of morning and evening news shows. That's about half the time the conventions got in 1976—yet Mann even this allotment has proved too much for ABC, which is devoting 180 hours to the Olympics. On the second night of the Democratic Convention, ABC left its already skimpy coverage to run half an episode of Hart to Hart: The Republic gets preempted for a rerun. Worse, none of the networks stayed on the air through the nomination process that officially made Geraldine Ferraro a candidate for Vice-President. History was made but TV couldn't be bothered.

It is a sorry commentary on the health of American democracy or on the length of the American attention span or, most likely, on the ability of TV journalists to find and report news. Conventions come, thankfully, but once every four years. True, they are no longer a forum for picking candidates; the parties try to do that dirty work in primaries instead of prime time. But the conventions do offer a rare chance to cheer, to suspend cynicism as a national credo, to hear high-minded statements and even believe in them. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and the Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered such eloquence to their followers; Ronald Reagan doubtless will do the same for his faithful in Dallas. The conventions also offer a chance to see politics at its worst—silliness, sleaziness and squabbling; somewhere between the hokum and the smoke-filled rooms lies political reality. And the conventions offer viewers a chance to do further thinking on their votes; that's a service that the networks—rich off the use of the public's airwaves—must provide.

If TV viewers are bored with all this, if they can tolerate only McNugget-size coverage, it may not be their fault—it may be the networks'. ABC, CBS and NBC are doing the worst job ever of covering the conventions; in that sense, it's a blessing that they're doing less of it. Here are the low and high points gleaned from watching every minute of the networks' Democratic Convention catastrophe:

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