Archive

TV News

Trump press corps

I am not one for conspiracy theories but I’m beginning to wonder about what’s up with the feud between the Trump Administration and the press corps. They ostensibly hate each other but somehow this bickering redounds to the benefit of both of them.

TV news ratings surged during the 2016 political season, when the media gave the then-long shot candidate Trump billions of dollars in free publicity, and they haven’t abated much during the early days of his presidency. The print media seems to doing equally well, with the New York Times reporting a quarter million increase paid digital subscriptions last quarter.

Consider the case of CNN’s Jake Tapper, well-known to political junkies but relatively invisible to the vast American public – at least until he was the subject of a notorious Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Kellyanne Conway with a fatal attraction for being booked on his show. How many other political reporters have, like Tapper, seen their visibility soar since they started hooking horns with the Administration? Maybe someone like Rachel Maddow, whose All Trump All the Time diatribes have sent her ratings soaring?

For his part, Trump’s refusal to abide by the niceties of established presidential decorum has kept him front and center of the American consciousness almost every single day since January 20. Plus it makes him a big hero among that very sizable portion of the U.S. public that absolutely loathes the media.

I honestly don’t think news organizations understand the full extent to which conservatives despise them. If they did they wouldn’t wear it like a badge of honor or think they must be doing something right whenever conservatives complain. This antipathy predates Trump by thirty years and his willingness to endure media scorn is precisely what propelled him to power.

When Trump and the media go at it, they are like the codependent parents of a dysfunctional family and the rest of us are the innocent kids who wish they’d either stop fighting or just get divorced. It’s exhausting and there’s never a day off because whenever it starts to get normal, Trump will wake up on a Saturday morning and tweet something crazy, giving the media another excuse to go berserk when the rest of us would just like to take a nap.

The reason recent presidents have tried unconventional ways of communicating with the public is that traditional media have lost interest in being the main vehicle through which presidents get their message across. Two or three decades ago you could count on the president giving three or four major policy addresses a year, plus few annual primetime press conferences. These were all dutifully presented live on TV before huge audiences.

Then the networks, under competitive pressure from entertainment cable channels that had no intention of covering a presidential speech, decided there was no “news value” in primetime presidential addresses and dropped them altogether. Adieu primetime Oval Office speeches. What we got instead was the spectacle of the president of the United States appearing on Zack Galafanakis’s “Between Two Ferns,” Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Drinking Coffee” and Mark Maron’s “WTF” podcast. It was a short step from that to Twitter.

To hear the media and the left tell it Trump’s attacks on the media are part of a secret plan to inaugurate American fascism. But what has he done besides name-calling? OK, it wasn’t nice to call them the “enemy of the people” or to blast them to their face in an impromptu press conference, but it was the Obama Administration that used the Espionage Act to go after whistle blowers who leaked to the press and who destroyed press privileges in the federal Fourth Circuit court with subpoenas against The New York Times reporter James Risen.

Oh sure, there is the incident in which White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer excluded The New York Times and CNN from a background briefing that was attended by Breitbart and The Washington Times. This has to be the most inconsequential inside baseball story in the young history of the Trump administration.

These small gatherings, called “gaggles,” involve a chosen few reporters who come into the press secretary’s office and get some background information. There is always a pool reporter present who reports back what was said so The New York Times and CNN were able to use that information to inform their readers and viewers of any news that transpired. And besides, remember when the Obama Administration tried to keep Fox News out of their briefings?

What GaggleGate boils down to is that Spicer was petty in not inviting some A-list reporters he didn’t like into his office and these reporters got their noses out of joint. For some reason this was national news.

Clearly there is no censorship or “chilling” of press freedom in this country. Trump gets pounded pretty good by the media every day, and I suspect he secretly likes it, being a practitioner of the “any news is good news” approach to publicity. The media doesn’t HAVE to go caterwauling every time Trump calls them a bad name, but if they didn’t they wouldn’t be able to call attention to themselves either.

So Trump and the media are having a jolly old time slugging it out with us, the innocent public, caught in the middle. This was starting to get old even before the Inauguration but now that we’re two months into the Presidency, can we please dial it back and hear about something else that’s happening in the world?

king_floridamap

It’s been a looooong time coming, but Election Day is finally upon us, which means we can all settle down to watching the results roll in on television.

And I do mean “on television,” because for all the impact of the Internet, there is little doubt that the vast majority of voters will be following the returns via the TV networks.

That is not to say that the digital world won’t have its impact.  On previous election nights I have opened a news Web site or two on my laptop, and checked Twitter commentary on my smartphone.  But this second- and third-screen engagement only supplements what’s happening on TV.  Over the years I’ve found that none of the political sites have the results any faster than the networks, since everyone’s working off the same information feed.

This is not to say that I love watching TV on election night.  Far from it.  Political announcers are a lot like sports announcers: There’s a lot of unnecessary chatter, repetition, and self-regard.  And you always feel as if they’re biased against your favorite team.

I am also irked by the we-know-something-you-don’t-know vibe that transcends the early hours of election night.  All the networks have exit polls that pretty accurately predict which way most of the non-“battleground” states will land.  We know they have this information, and they know we know it, yet they continue to operate as if it’s a big secret.

Because the exit polls can’t be mentioned until a state’s voting has ended, there’s usually some dramatic teaser at the end of the hour as the closing time for a new batch of states draws near.  I’m surprised they don’t have a dru roll at the top of the hour as the anchors rush to call the deep-red and deep-blue states before there’s even one vote in.  And while I understand the rationale for not calling a state until the polls close, I could do without the anchors being so coy about it.

Every election night, I spend the evening flipping around for the least objectionable newscast.  I am constantly in search of a channel that is both neutral and interesting.  This means both Fox and MSNBC are non-starters, since they are advocates for their own political philosophies. Unfortunately, my tolerance for the breathlessness and pompousness of the broadcast networks is also limited.  Consequently, I usually end up watching CNN, whose reporters mostly stick to just-the-facts reporting.

I’m not sure about this year, however.  I maintain a major grudge against CNN for the amount of free publicity they gave Donald Trump during the primaries, only to turn on him when he got nominated. Having said that, I do really like John King’s deep dives into the results at the county level, so I will probably start there and flip around when I need a break from the earnestness of Anderson Cooper.

Another gripe I have against CNN and all the other networks is their use of political consultants, lobbyists, former campaign managers and other hacks to “analyze” the results.  Of course this year we will not be treated to Donna Brazile’s, opinions since she was fired for leaking debate questions to the Clinton campaign — twice!

To be honest, I’m surprised that CNN got on its high horse about the Brazile revelations because I had always assumed that these talking heads, who are, after all, political guns for hire, were all dishing dirt to their buddies back at campaign HQ.  The cynic in me suspects that Brazile was not ejected for passing along information, but for getting caught by WikiLeaks.

Meanwhile, I don’t see the point of these insider panels anyway.  Very little actual analysis is offered up during these sessions.  Instead what we get is a regurgitation of campaign talking points that put the most favorable spin on the results that have come in so far.

But really, why are they spinning once the polls close?  It’s not like they can influence the outcome once the voting is done. Can’t they just tell us what they really think?  It’s almost like they’re afraid to alienate the bases of their parties and jeopardize future campaign work.

The best example of pointless spinning was from the 2012, election when Fox analyst and former George W. Bush campaign manager Karl Rove pitched such a fit that the network was calling Ohio for Obama that Megyn Kelly had to march down to the office of the true nuts and bolts analysts and confirm that they had made the right call (see video below).  Great TV, but you had to wonder why Rove was the guy on TV — and not those geeks in the boiler room, who actually get paid to get it right.

So here’s an idea: Let’s get rid of the conflicts of interest and banish talking heads altogether.  Almost anything would be better than listening to Jeffrey Lord or Van Jones.  If we must have commentators, let’s have actual entertainers – comedians, in fact.  There are plenty of comics that know a lot about politics.  Get a couple of conservatives like Dennis Miller and Jon Lovitz and put them on a panel with a couple of liberals like Sarah Silverman and Louis CK and let them go at it.  That would stop me from switching over to C-SPAN.

Ailes

So Roger Ailes has been ejected from his throne at Fox News and even barred from entering the News Corporation building.  You won’t find me shedding a tear because eight years ago he tried to get me fired.  What happened to me wasn’t as bad as what has allegedly happened to Fox’s own employees, but it did provide a brief glimpse of Fox’s modus operandi.

At the time of the events in question I was the chief spokesman for Nielsen and caught in the middle of one of those adolescent spitball fights that periodically erupts between media companies.  In one corner was Fox News, which had recently launched Fox Business News, a financial cable network that was supposed to do for financial reporting what they had done to political news.  In the other corner was CNBC, which Ailes had once led before being ushered out the door in 1996.

In 2007, Ailes launched Fox Business with great fanfare. This included a huge ad campaign that took direct aim at CNBC.  The day the network launched Fox even sent a reporter to stand outside CNBC’s headquarters and announce that it was “hunting season.”

The problem is that the shenanigans that made Fox News a political powerhouse didn’t work with financial viewers, who, since they are making investment decisions involving real money, tend to prefer their financial news to actually be fair and balanced.  The result was that the ratings for Fox Business News were in the toilet.  For the first two months it was on the air, it had an average audience of 6,300 viewers, about as many people as you’d see at a small town’s Thanksgiving Day football game.

The folks at CNBC and NBC were overjoyed by Fox’s flop but here’s the rub: under Nielsen rules, which had been carefully negotiated with all the media companies, no one can release viewing numbers with a rating below 0.1 (or 0.1 percent of the viewing audience), which in this case would have represented about 35,000 viewers.  This rule is designed to protect nascent cable networks so they aren’t humiliated by low numbers as they’re trying to get on their feet.

This rule usually protects networks that no one’s ever heard of, but Fox Business had launched with so much publicity that everyone in the TV world knew who they were.  CNBC wanted them humiliated but Nielsen wouldn’t release the 6,300 number and CNBC itself could have been sanctioned if they made it public.

Despite this rule, I was not surprised when someone actually did leak the number to New York Times media reporter Jacques Steinberg.  For years The Times and Fox had had a contentious relationship, to say the least.  Their values and biases were diametrically opposed and if there was any publication motivated and powerful enough to stand up to Fox it was The Times.

Steinberg’s call to Nielsen asking for confirmation came at the end of several weeks of furious calls among senior Nielsen, Fox and NBC executives, with NBC pressuring us to make the number public and Fox demanding that we squash the story.  Emotions were running high, with both networks acting like this story was on par with the Pentagon Papers.  Nielsen decided to stay neutral and enforce its own rule; eventually I ended up telling Steinberg that I would not confirm the number.  But I also reminded him that I would steer him away from erroneous information, which is what I would do for any reporter.

The resulting story reported the embarrassingly low numbers for Fox Business, with the Times sourcing it to “a person who saw those internal reports [and] vouched for their contents on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.”  CNBC “declined comment” and Fox didn’t answer emailed inquiries.  I was quoted in the piece by name as confirming the rules around the minimum reporting requirements.

I don’t think I’m breaking any confidentiality agreements when I reveal that Fox is (or at least was) full of vindictive bullies.  Fox News almost always got great ratings but whenever there was a dip, Ailes and his lieutenants would call and complain, threatening some kind of unspecified retribution.  Eventually there would be a war or terrorist attack to drive Fox ratings back up and things would be fine again, but for those months when they were slumping Ailes would make life miserable for Nielsen.

Ailes and the rest of Fox News either believed, or pretended to believe, they were the victims of a left-wing conspiracy, which was ridiculous as far as Nielsen was concerned.  Our CEO David Calhoun was, according to public filings, a steady contributor to Republican candidates and the rest of the executive team on balance leaned moderate right, to the extend they leaned any way at all.  As for me, it’s right there on my LinkedIn profile that I worked for a right-wing Congressman, served in the 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign and spent time in the Reagan White House.  So I had no ideological problems with Fox News.

In any event, Ailes (or his PR team) was exorcised enough about the story to send Nielsen a letter, which, among other things, demanded my head.  The logic of the letter was that since CNBC and Fox had declined comment and I was quoted in the story explaining how the reporting requirements work, I must have been the one to have leaked the number to The New York Times.  I doubt that even Ailes believed this bit of fallacious logic; instead I think the purpose of the letter was to punish me for refusing to play along with Fox in killing the story, which would have been impossible without outright deception.

Surprise! Nielsen didn’t fire me, viewing this as another Ailes tantrum, and he seemed to get over his fit of pique pretty quickly since the name “Gary Holmes” never appeared in any future Ailes correspondence or conversations.

Jacques Steinberg was not quite as lucky.  Fox launched a nasty on-air campaign against him and at one point even featuring him in an anti-Semitically doctored photo.  Nice.  With Ailes gone will bullying these tactics also disappear?  We can only hope.

 

418814_trump-media-wall

OK, here comes the Trump coronation.

The only satisfaction I can take from this week’s Republican convention is that the media are even unhappier than the Republican establishment.  Although why that should be the case is inexplicable, because he’s exactly the kind of candidate the media has been clamoring for.

For as long as I can remember, reporters and commentators (assuming there’s a difference) have been complaining about the plastic Ken and Barbie dolls who have been running for public office.  Two years ago, if you’d asked them to design the perfect presidential candidate, it would have been something like this:

  • Someone who says whatever’s on his mind, regardless of the consequences.
  • A non-politician who doesn’t use talking points, teleprompters, and canned stump speeches.
  • Someone who doesn’t use a pollster to “nuance” his positions.
  • A candidate who is not indebted to PACs and special interests.
  • A media-savvy communicator who will go on any talk show, talk to any reporter, answer any question, and hold plenty of press conferences.
  • A candidate who increases voter turnout among people who rarely go to the polls.
  • A near-atheist who can expose the religious right as hypocrites.
  • A populist who can make Fox News bend to his will, not the other way around.

Trump is all this and more, and the media is appalled that these ingredients didn’t combine to produce a left-leaning truth-teller like Bulworth. What a surprise.

Now that I’ve gone through all the stages of grief, I no longer blame the media solely for the rise of Trump.  Yes, I think it was unfair that the cable news channels would interrupt regular programming to show his speeches, or that the Sunday talk shows would invite him on week after week (and even let him call in).  But in retrospect, I am sympathetic to the situation news producers were in.  Trump generated big ratings for them because he was constantly making news, or at least making controversy.  The other candidates were either too cautious or too unimaginative to make news on a daily basis.

It’s probable that Trump would have received the nomination even if the media hadn’t put their thumbs on the scale.

There’s a body of thought that the media did a poor job of exposing Trump’s negatives.  That’s ridiculous. The kind of things that would have sunk a normal candidate in a normal year – the verbal screw-ups, the bankruptcies, the apostasies from conservative dogma, the use of illegal labor at his construction sites, the lack of religious conviction, the shenanigans at Trump University – were well-documented by the press and thrown at him in debate after debate.

Part of the problem is that the people who support Trump simply don’t believe the media and haven’t really believed them since the 1960s.  They suspect that the people who run the mainstream newsrooms look down on them and advocate for a kind of diversity that includes everyone else but them.  So these folks are apt to discount negative stories about Trump.

Media watchdogs have also taken the media to task for not doing more “fact-checking” on Trump’s proposals.  Also ridiculous.  There’s been plenty of coverage about his proposals – many of which are considered “gaffes.”  Further, there’s nothing that sticks in the craw of a conservative quite as much as the media appointing itself he arbiter of what’s correct and what’s incorrect in a candidate’s speech or debate performance.  Until left-leaning candidates receive the same level of scrutiny, it’s unlikely than any deep review of any candidate’s positions by the media will be taken seriously by  the right.

More to the point, this is a year when the actual positions taken by the candidates are considered performance art more than actual attainable goals.  I’ve listened, mouth agape, as Trump supporters admit that no, they don’t think a wall is really plausible, and no, they don’t really want to ban all Muslims from the United States.

But the same is true with Sanders supporters too. How many of them truly believe that free college is possible?  And while we’re at it, who seriously believes that Hillary Clinton is against the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

So while the media (and most of those hapless GOP contenders) thought this election was about policy positions, it’s really been about identity and grievance.  Trump’s consequence-free ability to abandon Republican orthodoxies shows that most people don’t care what legislation you propose — as long as you seem to be on their “side.”

Looked at it this way, Trump’s “gaffes” turned out to be part of his appeal. When the media thought they were driving a stake through his heart by reporting them so breathlessly, they were actually building him up as the anti-establishment candidate.

The media won’t be the ones to stop Trump.  That will be up the voters now.  If the media really want to stop Trump, the best thing they can do is to deliver the news straight, get off the ratings gravy train, and not treat Trump supporters as yahoos.  That shouldn’t be asking too much.

Mike Wallace

CBS Correspondent Mike Wallace arrested while covering the 1968 Democratic Convention

Well, it looks like those of us who’d so ardently hoped for a “contested convention” this summer will be denied again.  And if this wasn’t the year that a party convention ended up choosing the presidential candidate then maybe we should come to grips with the fact that it’s just not going to happen again in our lifetimes.

But that doesn’t mean these quadrennial events won’t provide good television.  Over the years some of the most exciting television moments have occurred at a presidential nominating convention.  Here are my nominations for the ten most memorable convention events of the television age:

1. Riots in Chicago (Dem 1968) – With the country in shock over the Kennedy and King assassinations and the party convulsed over the Vietnam War, the Democrats met in Chicago to nominate Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The result: the Chicago police beat up anti-war demonstrators as a civil war broke out inside the convention.  The footage is still shocking.

2.  Reagan Speech (GOP 1976) – The 1976 Republican convention was the last real contested convention, with Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford nearly tied heading into the voting. As the sitting president, Ford prevailed, and in a gesture of unity, invited Reagan to the podium. For most party regulars, who had, in this pre-Internet, pre-cable era, never heard Reagan speak, this emotional oration generated significant buyers’ remorse, as they realized they’d backed the wrong horse. Four years later they nominated Reagan and he went on to be elected.

3. First Obama Speech (Dem 2004) – Barack Obama was a little-known Illinois state legislator when he delivered an electrifying keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, the one that nominated John Kerry. This speech, with its message of hope and inclusion, eventually powered Obama’s own drive to become President just four years later.

4. Cuomo and Jackson Excoriate Reagan (Dem 1984) – With Ronald Reagan riding high in 1984, two of the most gifted orators of the 20th Century – Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson – rose to assail him as heartless and too beholden to the rich. Throughout history, most of the most memorable convention speeches have been delivered for losing causes, as was the case that year, but Cuomo laid the groundwork for “Occupy” rhetoric 27 years later and Jackson inspired the Rainbow Coalition that ultimately elected Barack Obama.

5. Clint Eastwood Interviews a Chair (GOP 2012) – In 2012 the Romney campaign was so eager for any hint of star power that they didn’t insist that Clint Eastwood clear his convention remarks beforehand. Instead of a standard convention speech, though, what they got was a bizarre piece of performance art in which Eastwood used the rhetorical device of asking questions to someone who wasn’t there (in this case President Obama).   Nice try. Stick to acting.

6. Reagan picks Bush as VP (GOP 1980) – The choice of a Vice President isn’t usually very exciting, unless it mobilizes part of the base, as it did with Geraldine Ferraro (1984) or Sarah Palin (2008). But in 1980, there were serious discussions about Ronald Regan choosing former President Jerry Ford as his VP.  That seemed to be the operating assumption until suddenly it wasn’t, to the shock of Walter Cronkite and Leslie Stahl.

7. Jeanne Kirkpatrick and the “San Francisco Democrats” (GOP 1984) – Reagan’s U.N. Ambassador, was a former Democrat and University professor and her foreign address in 1984 was little more than a lecture on the evils of Communism. Denouncing the “San Francisco Democrats” who were prone to “blame America first,” she managed to rouse the GOP convention through the sheer power of her analysis.

8. Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech (GOP 1964) – Goldwater was the Donald Trump of his day, considered too erratic and extreme to be allowed anyway near the nuclear codes. Like Trump, Goldwater doubled down, and to the howls of the convention, declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” He then went on to receive 38% of the popular vote.

9. The Al and Tipper Gore Lip Lock (Dem 2000) – What do you do when you are perceived as a nerd and a stiff? If you’re Al Gore, you go on national television and give your wife a long and ostensibly passionate kiss right after being nominated for president.  Ick.

10. Sarah Palin’s “Lipstick” speech (GOP 2008) — Before there was the Tea Party and its disdain of intellectualism and elites, there was Sarah Palin. What is forgotten now is how she revived the moribund McCain campaign and injected energy into his convention.  The speech itself, obviously not written by Palin, blistered Barack Obama with disdain while presenting herself as a just-folks representative of traditional America.   (“You know the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”)  As she spoke, the camera focused on her family: her pregnant teenage daughter Bristol and Bristol’s “fiancé,” her infant son with Downs Syndrome being cradled by another daughter, and her military son about to be deployed. This was one of the first acknowledgments that political families need not be perfect.

Will something bizarre and exciting happy at the conventions this year?  My money is on the Trump coronation, with riots in the streets and the possibility of Trump extemporizing the biggest speech of his life.  But then again, who knows how the Sanders supporters will react at the Democratic convention.  Either way, it will be worth tuning in to see history made again.

 

 

 

 

convention_aug08_4_631.jpg__800x600_q85_crop

Every four years, political junkies hope that the primaries will fail to select a consensus presidential candidate, thereby producing a dramatic showdown at the national convention.  The fact that this hasn’t happened since 1952 doesn’t usually discourage them until early March, when it’s obvious that the party is coalescing around a single candidate.

But this may be the year! Probably not at the Democratic convention — unless Hillary Clinton is indicted for her email scandal and the party apparatus decides to fight Bernie Sanders in favor of a more mainstream candidate.

No, it’s on the Republican side, where we might see a contested convention. With three candidates still in the hunt and Donald Trump needing 60% of the remaining delegates to guarantee the nomination, it’s possible that no one will arrive at the Cleveland convention with a majority of the delegates. This is especially true after Trump’s loss in Wisconsin.

If political junkies are excited at the prospect, the networks must be thrilled. The Republican debates have generated huge ratings and the conventions would probably do the same. Best of all, this would be extra viewing in the summer, when ratings are low.  And viewing would be live – not time-shifted – so there would be no pesky fast-forwarding during the commercials.

There was a time when the networks turned over their entire prime-time slot (and more) to the convention proceedings. Sometimes it was boring, and sometime it was dramatic. One of the most indelible TV memories of my childhood was watching the police beat up protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, while the party itself imploded inside the convention hall. The 1976 Republican convention in Chicago was also pretty exciting, with Ronald Reagan just barely falling short of unseating then-President Gerald Ford.

By the 1980s, the networks had started to cut back on their coverage, seeing little news value in the event, given that the nominees were pre-selected and the platform pre-written.  In recent years, broadcast networks have allocated one hour a night to the convention proceedings, which meant that a well-oiled convention would be sure to schedule the most-important speeches between 10 and 11 p.m. ET.

The truly memorable convention events of the last 20 years have been few and far between: maybe then-State Senator Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address at the Democratic convention, or Clint Eastwood’s bizarre interview with the empty chair at the 2012 GOP gathering.

But at a contested convention, all bets are off. Trump has already threatened riots if he’s thwarted — and even if his supporters don’t riot, there is a distinct possibility of unrest from groups who oppose him.

If there’s a contested convention, the American people will become much more acquainted with the arcana of convention procedures. First stop will be wall-to-wall coverage of the Rules Committee, which will decide, among other things, whose name can be placed in nomination. This includes the rule that a candidate needs to have a majority of delegates from eight delegations to be nominated.  Only Trump meets this standard so far, and it’s not clear that Cruz or Kasich will get there. The Rules Committee could change that rule, and probably will if Cruz doesn’t get his eight delegations, since he’s making sure his supporters get on the committee.

Then there will be wrestling over who gets to speak during the plenary sessions.  In 1964, liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller took to the podium and denounced the likely nominee, the paleo-conservative Barry Goldwater, which resulted in pandemonium on the floor. What if some “Never Trump” speaker does the same thing this year?  Or what if a speaker gives a speech so electrifying that the convention becomes swept up in the moment and nominates him or her?  That’s what happened with William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

The climactic vote on the presidential nomination itself will be the highlight of the event.  There has never been more than one convention vote for a president in the television era.  Under state rules, most delegates go to the convention pledged to a particular candidate — but by the third round of voting, all delegates will be free to vote for whomever they like.

We can only imagine what these extra rounds will be like. By tradition, there’s an alphabetical roll call by state, and each delegation leader uses the occasion to deliver a mini-commercial for the state (“Mister Chairman, the great state of Vermont – the Green Mountain State and the land of maple syrup, cheddar cheese and Lake Champlain – proudly casts its 27 votes for the next President of the United States, Ted Cruz.”)  This has a certain charm for about 10 states, but it is not a TV-friendly way to conduct a vote.  It’s hard to believe that those mini-commercials will continue after the first vote, but even a straightforward roll call of the states and territories will be time-consuming.

We probably won’t know whether there will be a contested convention until June 7, when the final five states, including California, have their primaries. Until then, network executives will have their fingers crossed, hoping for a real bonfire in Cleveland.

Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Donald Trump

It looks as if the reality television series sometimes known as the GOP presidential debates has been canceled.  The Republican front-runner, having successfully manipulated the debates since their debut last summer, has pulled down the curtain, apparently believing he has nothing to gain from additional episodes.

Still, in this crazy political season, we can’t rule out a series renewal.  The Republican National Committee has authorized another debate for April, which might occur in New York City. If that one comes through, it will be debate number 13 — which is appropriate, since a 13-week commitment is now standard for many TV series.

The Democrats, of course, went another way, limiting the number of debates, scheduling them on nights when few people would be watching, and then presenting mostly sedate affairs.  Few would mourn if the Democratic debate season was over.

The end of the GOP debates must come as a disappointment to the networks.  Some of the them were the most-watched programs of their week. In CNN’s case, the Sept. 16 debate gave the network the biggest audience in its history.  Even more important, the debates provided a platform for the networks’ news personalities.  Everyone knows who Megyn Kelly is now!

The debates followed the format of classic reality TV.  Crucially, no one was there “to make friends.” The season started with 16 contestants, and over time the field narrowed.  The most recent debate had four participants, and since then Marco Rubio has been voted of the island, bringing the remaining total to three.  And, as in most reality shows, the most popular character is someone you love to hate.

The debates have had something for everyone.  They’ve provided high comedy and low; they’ve had drama, backstabbing, character assassination, career suicide, pathos and pity.  And they’ve provided some of the most indelible memories of the TV season.

Good government types usually pooh-pooh televised debates as mere theater and unrelated to the “real” business of governing.  They seem to think a president should spend the day in the Oval Office poring over briefing books and dispassionately making policy decisions based on the facts alone.

In reality, presidential leadership requires good communications skills and the ability to make others bend to your will.  If you lack the charisma, wit, and brute personality to succeed in a debate, you’re unlikely to convince the American people or Congress to go along with you.  Sorry, Jeb Bush.

Since the first presidential debate in 1960, televised debates have been among the most consequential events of the campaign season.  A tan and rested John Kennedy is acknowledged to have won the election that year because of the visual contrast he offered with the tired and sweaty Richard Nixon.

Gerald Ford tanked his re-election bid in 1976 when he inexplicably declared that Poland was not in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.  Four years later, Ronald Reagan helped his cause by genially zinging Jimmy Carter (“There you go again”) for his misstatements of Reagan’s record.

Say what you will about this year’s debates and candidates, the voters cannot complain they haven’t been given a chance to make an informed decision.  Not all the debates were edifying — we didn’t really need to hear about the size of Trump’s manhood, for example — but some were practically public policy seminars. For example, there was the last one in Miami, when none of the participants thought it was in his interest to launch ad hominem attacks.

Over the last six months we’ve seen the candidates at their best and worst.  We’ve seen them try to out-bully, out-argue each other and out-charm each other. Their positions on all the issues in the race were examined, attacked and defended.  You might not like where they stand, but real differences among the candidates were delineated.

Donald Trump was obviously the star of the 2015-16 GOP debates.  His bankruptcies, his hiring of undocumented workers, his refusal to release his tax returns,  his lack of religious commitment, his bullying — they were all exposed, and a plurality of primary voters made the informed decision that they just didn’t care.  Again, voters cannot say they were duped or not warned.

If Trump was the star of the debates, I’d nominated Rubio as the Best Supporting Player.  In most of the debates he was the most articulate participant, and in the Feb. 25 Houston debate he delivered the most stinging attack on Trump’s character and business practices (not that it did Rubio any good.)  And yet it was Rubio who suffered the worst debate collapse when Chris Christie accused him of parroting memorized talking points, and he responded by doing just that.  Rubio, who had been surging in New Hampshire before that debate, ended up in fifth place and never seriously recovered his “Marcomentum.”

While we’re at it, congratulations to Fox News for hosting the best, most substantive debates.  It’s not surprising that a right-wing news team was able to identify and then probe on issues that mattered most to right-wing voters.  What’s surprising is that Fox didn’t pander to Trump like the rest of the networks.  Fox had the credibility with viewers to push back against Trump — and it used that credibility, even though it probably cost the network some viewer support.

Whether there will be another Republican debate will largely depend on whether Trump thinks he needs to verbally crush Ted Cruz to avoid a contested convention.  If not, we’ll have to wait for the fall, when the actual nominees go at it.

It’s hard to see how a Trump/Clinton debate would be anything other than a train wreck — and a huge ratings success.