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TV's unconventional night capped by raves for Michelle Obama

In this image from video, Eva Longoria, serving as moderator, speaks during the first night of the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. (Democratic National Convention via AP)

NEW YORK — After a night in which television struggled to keep up with the Democrats’ virtual convention, networks were rewarded with the most traditional of political events — a powerful speech.

Before former first lady Michelle Obama’s keynote address, much of the coverage felt uncomfortably like watching an army making the common mistake of fighting a new conflict with the tactics of the last war.

“This will not be like any convention we have seen before, ever,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper said at the opening of his network’s coverage. “The coronavirus changes the way we do everything.”

The pandemic forced Democrats to abandon a Milwaukee convention hall. Instead, the party produced a slick, fast-moving infomercial hosted by actress Eva Longoria Baston that featured quick speeches, music and the testimony of non-politicians. It even featured the presidential candidate himself, Joe Biden, as a television “anchor” interviewing five figures arrayed before him on screens.

Speakers stood before a variety of backdrops: Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser was above the “Black Lives Matter” plaza, while the pile of firewood behind Sanders made it appear he was getting ready for a long Vermont winter.

Until Sanders and Obama, politicians played a secondary role. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose father Mario’s soaring keynote highlighted the 1984 convention, was immediately overshadowed by Kristin Unquiza’s story of her father’s death from COVID-19.

Typical conventions have moments for television analysts to comfortably opine, when there’s a set change, a boring speaker who drones on too long or lengthy applause by delegates.

Yet there were fewer obvious moments to slip away Monday. CNN and MSNBC essentially sidelined their onscreen talent to show virtually all the production. Others missed moments in order to get in some words edgewise.

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones was essentially ignored in favour of an NBC discussion about mail-in voting; a CBS interview with Reince Priebus, President Donald Trump’s former chief of staff; and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie calling another former governor, Ohio’s John Kasich, a “back-stabber” on ABC.

Segments spent on broadcast networks previewing speeches by Obama and Sanders seemed like time-wasters when there were other things to show.

NBC’s Kristen Welker was previewing Obama’s speech when Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto was speaking about mail-in voting. ABC and CBS slipped in commercials. Fox News aired a segment talking about a poll released by CNN — a network its personalities frequently criticize — because of it showed Trump narrowing the gap with Biden.

Although broadcast networks were on the air for the second of the two-hour Democratic show, top personalities like George Stephanopoulos, Norah O’Donnell and Chuck Todd logged time earlier in the evening on livestreams.

After Obama’s speech, commentators were awestruck. The lack of a live audience clapping and cheering seemed beside the point.

“A truly extraordinary moment in American political history,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said .

“This is how pastors the Sunday before the election are going to sound,” said MSNBC’s Joy Reid. “She preached the word tonight.”

“She really flayed, sliced and diced Donald Trump,” said Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace.

Wallace’s colleague, Dana Perino, stumbled into an unfortunate word choice in an effort to convey enthusiasm for Obama’s address.

“You get the sense when you talk about authenticity, she has it in spades,” Perino said.

Network executives are curious to see how many people will tune in to the virtual show, which should become clear Tuesday. Four years ago, when Hillary Clinton was nominated, 25 million people tuned in to the first night.

David Bauder, The Associated Press