Donald Trump has been criticized for plans that would make the Republican national convention more like a reality TV show. But let’s be honest: It already is a reality TV show, just not a very good one.
Once upon a time, conventions were actual news: a place where the party’s grassroots and its top leadership got together to decide who would be the nominee. (It even briefly looked like that might happen this year too.) But since the 1980s, they’ve become pro forma affairs where the decisions made at the various primaries and caucuses were officially ratified, like college students turning their tassels on their mortarboards for a degree they’ve already earned.
That’s made them more like what the historian Daniel J. Boorstin called a “pseudo-event” in 1961—a happening designed for the sole purpose of being covered by the news. (To be fair, the parties also put together a platform and do other internal business, but the events wouldn’t be broadcast anywhere but C-SPAN if that’s all they did.)
But here’s the thing: They’re not even very good pseudo-events. The modern televised convention consists of some roll call votes that anchors have to talk over; speeches by key surrogates, the vice presidential nominee and the nominee; a short gauzy propaganda movie; and a balloon drop.
Ask yourself: Would American Idol have lasted 15 seasons if it had begun with a three-hour episode of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell giving speeches; a brief pro forma vote confirming that Kelly Clarkson had already won; and some balloons?
So how could the techniques of reality TV improve the conventions? Here are a few suggestions.
• Create suspense. Trump has suggested that he might not name his running mate until the convention. If he or Hillary Clinton did, that would add some genuine news to the proceedings. Even better, they could have all of the vice presidential short listers speak and hint that they’ve not made up their minds yet. Each of those speeches would get a lot more attention as a result, and they could always bring the veep pick out for a reprise later.
• Add confessionals. The conventions are tightly scripted, with speakers coming on stage to deliver their set pieces and then going back into seclusion. But on reality TV, the stars head straight back to the camera for “confessionals” where they talk about what they were thinking. Trump has done the same at the debates, often going straight from the stage to talk with reporters about what he was thinking.
• Embrace mistakes. Things don’t always go right, but past conventions have treated those as moments to gloss over. On reality TV, they obsess about the things that went wrong. The next time there’s a Clint Eastwood-chair moment, turn it into an opportunity. Have the person who goofed talk about it on confessionals and the next speakers make jokes about it. Those stories come out eventually anyway. Make them part of the show.
• Use the nominee. Past conventions have tried to save the presidential nominees for the end, but they are the stars of the show. Have them do something briefly on stage each night, even if it’s just to come up and introduce a speaker or give a short speech on the theme of the day. There’s no reason they should just be sitting in the audience, shown only in reaction shots, for three of the four days.
• Change the pre-nomination film. In 1992, the Democratic convention had a short documentary called “The Man from Hope” tell Bill Clinton’s life story. But this technique has grown stale and neither Trump nor Clinton are unknowns. Instead, make the film more like those pre-recorded bits on reality shows where the stars head back to their hometown or fret about getting ready for the big day. Show Clinton arguing with her speechwriter or Trump shopping for the perfect suit.
None of these techniques will make the convention any more useful as a way of judging the nominees. They won’t tell us more about their policies or how they’d respond to crises in the Oval Office. But the recent conventions haven’t done that either.
If the conventions are going to be little more than reality TV theatrics, they should at least be interesting.
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