Producing the Convention
In preparing a national party convention, much groundwork is done before the nominee is actually chosen; the candidate can then be "plugged in" later.  Democrats began their site selection process back in December 1997, and the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) started gearing up in September 1999.  It was fairly certain that Vice President Al Gore would be the Democratic standard-bearer from the outset of the 2000 season.  Gore's sweep of the March 7 primaries finalized matters.

By late April 2000 the production team had been named and the actual work of developing the podium program began.1  In the middle of the activity was executive producer Gary Smith.  Smith, a partner in the L.A.-based production firm Smith-Hemion, brought a wealth of experience to the job; he has served as executive producer/director for the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Democratic National Conventions.

As with the proverbial kitchen and its many different cooks, many individuals, all with their own agendas, weighed in with ideas for the convention.  During a post-election interview, Smith noted that what matters is often "whose idea it is, not what idea it is." There are times when a good idea is "not executed because it wasn't the right person's idea," he said.  In 2000, for the first time, the Democratic convention was largely financed by private contributions.  A number of individuals who put up or helped raise big money felt they should have some input, and as a result there were perhaps even more people venturing opinions than for past conventions.

"The best ideas are the ideas that the networks cover."
-Gary Smith, Executive Producer of the 2000 Democratic National Convention

The bottom line objective for the convention was to make the case: Why Al Gore Should Be President.  The producers had a lot of time to work with; the Los Angeles convention unfolded over four days with roughly 30 hours of podium activity.  "Keeping an energy in the hall" posed a major challenge.  Of course major networks covered only a fraction of this.  Although the networks have pared back their convention coverage, and there are thousands of news organizations of all types providing coverage, getting the best possible network coverage remains a pre-eminent focus.  The convention producers want the networks to cover what they have so carefully planned for the podium; meanwhile the networks have the view that, "We're going to cover what we cover." That includes analysts talking, cut-aways to show bored delegates, ad breaks and so forth.

An example of how the networks have a mind of their own could be seen in their coverage of President Clinton's entrance on the convention's first night.  A solo camera showed Clinton's walk through the dark, narrow corridors of Staples Center and out to the podium (this was similar to his entrance at Madison Square Garden in 1992).  The walk took over a minute; the effect was dramatic, conveying a behind-the-scenes atmosphere and an excitement that grew as he approached the podium.3  Unlike the original walk in 1992, this time the producers added captions highlighting Clinton administration accomplishments.  Viewers in the hall saw Clinton walking and the captions.  Television viewers had a different picture.  "The networks interpreted the captions as hard sell," Smith said.  "They showed the walk clean [without captions]."  What the television audience sees differs, sometimes markedly and sometimes in small but significant ways, from the experience in the hall.

Networks are after "good television."  One idea that did not work as well as planned in this respect was the attempt to incorporate town meeting concept into the convention.  On the first three nights elected officials talked with groups of three to five citizens in what were billed as "American Dialogue" segments.  The conversations, under themes such as "Prosperity and Progress" and "The Promise of Tomorrow," illustrated Clinton-Gore policies and priorities and how they had benefited and would benefit ordinary citizens.  This highlighting of ordinary citizens is a familiar technique, but it did not make for good television.

Although conventions are highly scripted exercises, producers must make countless spur-of-the-moment decisions that affect the flow of the show.  To take a general example, if the convention production team notices that all the networks are on a commercial break, they will hold off presenting anything big on the stage until the networks return.  There are other unplanned and unforeseen developments that crop up; these minor glitches for the most part go unnoticed by the delegates and the viewing audience.

For example, on the convention's second day as Rev. Jesse Jackson was about to speak, Sen. Joe Lieberman appeared outside the hall and was about to make his entrance.  If Lieberman had come in while Jackson was speaking, the resulting distraction could have created a difficult situation with Jackson.

Another example.  There were many videos for use in downtimes.  One of these featured theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who is confined to a wheelchair due to Lou Gehrig's disease.  About 30 seconds before the end of this moving video, Sen. Lieberman walked in the hall.  Of course, the network cameras immediately abandoned the video and went to Lieberman.  Later, a caller to C-SPAN asked if the Democrats had planned it that way.

"It ain't all clockwork," said Smith.  "You plan as much as you can," he said.

The planning paid off.  After the first three days, the stage was set for Gore's acceptance speech on August 17.   His celebrated kiss of wife Tipper created a stir for days afterwards, and he delivered a well received acceptance speech, declaring "I stand here tonight as my own man."  The fall campaign began on a positive note.  "The convention really scored well," concluded Smith.

1. After the election, a member of the production team noted that program planning would have been greatly facilitated if the Gore campaign had plugged in directly with the producers a month earlier than actually happened.  As it was, communication between the producers and the campaign proceeded through the intermediary of the DNCC.  Some of the DNCC people and Gore people, lacking convention experience, did not realize the importance of direct communication.  This "bottlenecked the process."  The Gore team was painfully slow in finalizing the program.  Frequent refrains were "we can't give you a sign off" and "it hasn't been vetted yet."  Direct communications and the go-ahead for major parts of the program did not come until about two weeks out from the convention.
2. For example, in view of the Elián González saga, which had dogged Gore in the first part of 2000, Smith wanted to book Cuban American singer Gloria Estefan to perform a patriotic piece.  He believes Estefan, whom he described as "a good Democrat," would have performed if asked, but the Gore forces were apparently not happy with Estefan.  "We don't want her," he was told.  In retrospect, given what happened in Florida, Smith believes a performance by Estefan, Jon Secada or another member of that community could have helped Gore win critical votes.  "Part of our job is entertainment," Smith said, but, "There's meaning behind it; there's a reason why people are asked to perform."

3. In Divided We Stand, Roger Simon wrote of the walk that it was "cooked up [by Harry Thomason] in order for Clinton to look like Gary Cooper in High Noon."  Joel Achenbach, in It Looks Like a President Only Smaller, described Clinton's "rockstar entrance" in withering terms: "To my limited knowledge it was the most egregiously self-aggrandizing and pretentious moment in the history of the presidency."

Copyright 2001 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action