It was superstar time at the Democratic National Convention tonight, and there were fireworks going off, in Delaware, Pennsylvania and the White House
“The Democrats will roll out their biggest guns yet,” declared ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos as the broadcast networks went live at 10 PM ET before speeches by former President Barack Obama and Vice-Presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris.
“I know a predator when I see one,” former prosecutor Harris proclaimed in a direct hit on an unmentioned Donald Trump that will certainly be the takeaway line of the night in a speech that otherwise barely addressed the incumbent.
Well, it would have been the takeaway line if Harris hadn’t followed Obama’s blisteringly eloquent takedown of the ex-Celebrity Apprentice host and his threat to democracy.
On a night of historical actors in full flight, no wonder Trump is determined to counter program former Vice-President Joe Biden’s big night with a suddenly announced appearance on Fox News’ Hannity tomorrow.
Still, in a Wilmington ballroom with a scattering of socially distanced journalists, Harris also gave an acceptance speech unique in modern American history.
As Harris’ wave to applause on a video monitor as opposed to cheering delegates makes obvious, it is unique for the realities that the coronavirus pandemic has forced on the 2020 campaign, the country and the world. At the same time, tonight perhaps more than before, it was an up-close event that took the traditionally hackneyed personal stories of the candidates and gave them new emotional heft in the absence of the constant interruptions of hurrahs and standing ovations.
Which made for great television as 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Elizabeth Warren (with those blocks in the background spelling out BLM) provided the warm up to the dual headliners. Let’s be honest, that’s the job of a penultimate episode, to set up the real stakes, isn’t it?
“We will tell them not just what we felt, but what we did.” @SenKamalaHarris 🙌🏾
— Mindy Kaling (@mindykaling) August 20, 2020
Now, not being done any favors by awkward control room cuts to a wide shot during her quite straightforward speech, Harris has made history in more ways than one tonight. Her nomination makes the California Senator the first woman of color on a major political party’s national ticket. “In this election, we have a chance to change the course of history, Harris acknowledge literally and figuratively towards the end of her remarks. “We’re all in this fight.”
To that end, another made-for-2020 TV moment came soon afterwards with her running mate and Obama’s VP and Dr. Jill Biden coming onstage for a final wave …with no balloon drop.
But, tonight belonged to Barack Obama with perhaps the most defiant address of his career.
“What we do echoes through the generations…” – #PresidentObama pic.twitter.com/Z2AkReZb1k
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) August 20, 2020
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t,” the 44th POTUS ripped his successor in language we hear more often from big screen and small screen Presidents than real ones. “And the consequences of that failure are severe,” Obama added, listing off the COVID-19 crisis, the economic meltdown and more live from Constitution Hall in Philadelphia.
Far more concisely than the analysis of the stunned pundits, AMC PR kingpin Jim Maiella put the speech by this real-life American President in perfect context:
Andrew Shepherd wasn’t this good.
— Jim Maiella (@jimmaiella) August 20, 2020
As striking as Obama’s call to the barricade of democracy was, the speech was actually in line with a Wednesday that was all about going live with urgency.
In a very 2020 approach, the video heavy two-hour primetime presentation was also clearly aiming to go viral to get voters’ attention.
Right off the bat, a semi-surprise cold opening by Sen. Harris was trending strong on social media. A stirring performance by Grammy winner Billie Eilish in the first hour of the 9 – 11 PM ET blew up and clearly had the attention of a demographic the Dems are hoping to hook.
The first hour’s focus on young activists and celebrities clearly was aimed at drawing voters under 30 to the campaign of the oldest person ever to run for a major party ticket — and also an acknowledgement that they are more than likely to consumer the content in clips than on traditional TV. The fact is that very few younger voters will watch this the whole way through. As better produced as the convention has gotten during the week, the TV ratings for the 18-34 audience remain pretty scant. But, as tonight shows, that’s okay because this is a convention made to be broken apart for Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube – AKA, where the 18-34 audience lives.
Added star power came from Scandal star Kerry Washington, who was the moderator of tonight’s tightly produced “A More Perfect Union” themed broadcast. In fact, having played a D.C. insider for all those years on the Shonda Rhimes series, it is pretty clear based on tonight that Emmy nominated Washington should been given her own talk show in this Oprah-less era, just sayin’.
Yes, there were more glitches than on Night 2.
Pelosi’s voiceover introduction stepping over the Speaker’s opening words, an overly long cut to Obama in the City of Brotherly Love and Clinton and Harris staring into the camera for just a little too long before beginning their own words. However, that’s live TV in all its true glory – even more so in a global health crisis.
Otherwise, it was more of the same, for better and worse, on the media landscape during the second to last night of DNC 2020.
In a repeat of past nights so far, CNN and MSNBC carried the DNC feed live while Fox News Channel mainly use the first hour as video wallpaper for Sean Hannity’s Trump talking points. ABC, CBS and NBC all came on live at 10 PM ET just as Speaker Pelosi was ending her remarks. However, once again, the convention you saw on most of cable news and the one you saw on the broadcast nets was strikingly different.
Time and time again, anchors such as CBS’ Norah O’Donnell shifted the focus from the Democrats to pundit panels talking about the Democrats. A decision that may have given policy wonks a new piece of trivia to quote, but also frayed the narrative that the Ricky Kirshner produced convention was unfolding with some stealth.
Part of that stealth was the message that Kamala Harris will be a different VP nominee in political as well as cultural terms. An Ernest Hemingway quoting and suffragette all-white wearing ex-Secretary of State Clinton took on some of the traditional Veep role of attack dog. Harris, on the other hand, was less prosecutorial and more surgical and aspirational in her word, gestures and tones.
Because as anyone who has flipped through Robert McKee’s Story tome knows, that’s how you set up the final act … and that’s freaking Donald Trump out in all caps:
BUT DIDN’T SHE CALL HIM A RACIST??? DIDN’T SHE SAY HE WAS INCOMPETENT???
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 20, 2020
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