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Play Politics

It's a coincidence but last November, as the television writers went on strike, interest in the race for the presidency skyrocketed. It would be too trite to suggest a connection.

It is much more likely that the nation is involved with this election because voters are overwhelmingly opposed to the war in Iraq, afraid about the economy and their home equity heading south, and anxious to have the current president out of office. Americans would have been involved with the election regardless of what was on television.

But the fact that Americans are extraordinarily interested presents an opportunity for broadcasters and cable channels that they should exploit: After all, the race for the presidency is the ultimate reality show, with plot lines that are a mix of Big Brother,The Apprentice and Survivor, to name a few that come to mind.

Last week, at the Television Bureau of Advertising's excellent television marketing conference, Evan Tracey, the oft-quoted chief operating officer for the Campaign Media Analysis Group, pointed out that unlike any other candidate, Sen. Barack Obama has spent 41% of his ad budget to put his political ads on programs in primetime. Other candidates are advertising around news programs—old people watch news and vote—but Tracey's observation suggests that the surge of interest by young adults and voters otherwise dulled by politics may have been stoked by learning about Obama while watching Moment of Truth, not Meet the Press.

That kind of involvement also means that broadcasters needn't fear spending more airtime on documentaries that delve into real, tough political issues.

It certainly suggests that when the Democratic Convention comes around Aug. 25-28 in Denver, the broadcast networks, which have been steadily reducing the amount of time they spend covering them, should use the event as a great civics lesson.

They should do the same Sept. 1-4, when the Republicans meet in St. Paul, Minn. The networks should throw away the old convention script and let viewers experience the delegates, the politics and the politicians up close and personal, the way ABC's Roone Arledge transformed the Olympics some 30 years ago.

In recent years it has been hard to argue that networks had some reason to cover the conventions gavel-to-gavel. Everything already had been decided. That won't be the case this time, especially for the Democrats. America suddenly has learned that politics can be a team sport, and they want to play.

Being the Cuisinart of culture that TV can be, young people are now learning their civics lessons from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which may say that they are not news programs, but whose guests are usually historians, political authors or politicians themselves. The “dull” parts of those shows make some of the sharpest points.

Network programmers should have a ready, demographically desirable audience that would be fascinated to explore the really real lives of Sens. McCain, Clinton and Obama. Television's most powerful news brands have a unique opportunity during this election. It should not be politics—or television—as usual.