The Virtual DNC: Highs and Lows of the Unusual Event’s Format, Which Teases Live Coverage to Come

The 2020 DNC did not boast the visual splendor of traditional conventions but managed to trim much of the fat that plagues similar events.
Kamala Harris and Joe Biden
Kamala Harris and Joe Biden stand together during the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday, August 19.

Organizing what was essentially a week-long television advertisement for Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the middle of a pandemic was no enviable feat. The creators of the Democratic Party’s eight-hour event, which was evenly spread over four days, were tasked with creating a socially distanced show that would energize the American voters, lay out Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ platform, and set the tone for the final two-odd months before the 2020 presidential election.

The result was… a collection of Zoom calls and prepackaged videos that were essentially political infomercials. Undoubtedly slick, well-produced Zoom calls and informercials, but Zoom calls and infomercials nonetheless.

That sounds pejorative, but given the unprecedented production challenges DNC organizers faced due to the coronavirus pandemic, the unusual format of the 2020 Democratic National Convention was entirely understandable. The event was unlike any other American political convention in the country’s history and though its formatting was not without faults, several aspects of the 2020 DNC’s makeup deserve praise.

The convention’s videoconferencing aesthetic was a common critique among the event’s detractors in the media, but it’s hard to imagine the convention being structured differently, given the necessity of social distancing. The design choice was probably for the best, as the convention’s occasional attempts to emulate a “normal” DNC atmosphere were mixed; Harris gave her Wednesday speech in a large and practically empty room and the sterile atmosphere didn’t do her any favors.

The 2020 DNC might’ve made history as the first (mostly) videoconference-styled political TV broadcast, but the event was preceded by a myriad of recent entertainment industry productions that looked strikingly similar. Hollywood has produced a variety of “coronavirus TV specials” over the last few months for shows ranging from beloved comedies like “Parks & Recreation” and “30 Rock” to newer shows such as “All Rise” and “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet.” Those specials, which hailed from veteran Hollywood creatives, were primarily comprised of Zoom calls of actors’ homes and direct-to-camera conversations and in some cases featured less diverse stage designs than the DNC. From a visual standpoint, the DNC managed to be more engaging than some of the most well-known television specials of the last few months.

While much of the convention was pre-recorded, the DNC’s mix of live events also added a much-needed degree of spontaneity and timeliness to the proceedings. The event was a stark contrast to Comic-Con 2020, which was essentially nothing more than a collection of identical-looking pre-taped advertisements and industry panels (Data suggests that SDCC 2020 was a profound failure). With September’s Emmys set to spread itself out over an unusually long six days, it’ll be interesting to see if those award shows and other virtual Hollywood events will take notes from the DNC’s design choices.

The week-long event also deserves praise from a technical standpoint: Aside from a few awkward cuts and a speech or two that started a few seconds early or late, there wasn’t much to complain about regarding the moment-to-moment management of the event. That might seem like a low bar to settle for, but given the mix of live and pre-recorded segments and numerous broadcasts from every corner of the country, it’s a minor miracle that there weren’t significant technical difficulties during the convention.

Virtual format aside, the 2020 DNC’s key difference from prior conventions was its abbreviated length, which ended up being one of its strongest elements. It featured shorter speeches — likely better for generating social media-friendly soundbites — that weren’t dragged out by endless pauses for applause, and the lengthy formalities that define every political convention were mercifully trimmed down. The best example of this was Tuesday’s roll call, where delegates from 57 states and territories cast their votes for a presidential nominee. Roll calls are usually an agonizingly long affair but Tuesday’s made ample use of its short time: It was to-the-point, most delegates noted specific issues that could resonate with residents from that state or territory, and was visually pleasing — just seeing people doing stuff outside in diverse locations is a genuine delight these days.

Although the 2020 DNC was a leaner affair, more could’ve been trimmed. One of the virtual format’s weaker elements was its liberal use of montages and pre-taped videos of “ordinary” voters. Simply put, there were way too many of each and they began to blend together long before the convention wrapped up. A handful of them were undeniably memorable, such as the emotional Tuesday video from Ady Barkan, an activist diagnosed with ALS, but the DNC could’ve made better use of its time by offering more engaging live programming.

While the montages and other pre-taped videos could’ve used a trimming down, the event’s various musical performances should’ve been done away with entirely. While there’s some appeal to seeing beloved musicians perform at massive television events — the Super Bowl halftime is an annual event, after all — that concert energy simply didn’t translate to the virtual DNC. Even with the trimming down, this was an already overlong DNC and the smattering of glorified music videos was not an efficient use of time.

Overall, this streamlined format appeared to be fine-tuned to generate viral moments and easily shareable soundbites. And yet it did not court as many viewers as the 2016 DNC. The six biggest television networks averaged a combined 19 million viewers during the convention’s first day. The same six networks had almost 25 million viewers during the first night of the 2016 DNC.

Broadcast ratings for the DNC’s second and third days were also lower than the viewership of the same days during the 2016 DNC. While data on the final night of the convention — which often sees viewership spikes — isn’t available yet, it’s clear that broadcast viewership for the overall event declined from the prior DNC. Though the lack of a physical convention could’ve contributed to the viewership declines, the DNC occurred in the middle of a pandemic that continues to destabilize the country, shortly after nationwide protests regarding racism and police brutality, and just a few weeks before Biden is slated to face off against Trump in the first debate. Those factors could’ve motivated more Americans to tune into the 2020 DNC than conventions of prior years. That didn’t happen.

Lower broadcast viewership is clearly undesirable for DNC organizers, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Digital viewership, such as the DNC streams on YouTube, social media, the DNC website, and other online platforms, do not factor into broadcast ratings but could’ve constituted a considerable portion of the event’s viewership. There’s no Nielsen equivalent for tracking viewership on online platforms, but T.J. Ducklo, Biden’s national press secretary, claimed that 10.2 million people tuned in to digital DNC streams and stated that statistic “shattered the previous record for digital streams.” A Biden campaign official is not the ideal source for an estimate on the Biden-focused DNC’s online viewership, but given that America’s mass media audience is rapidly beginning to favor streaming video over traditional TV, it’s safe to assume that the lower broadcast viewership coincided with a rise in streaming viewership.

Regardless, the event’s engagement might’ve fared better if the DNC organizers boasted more social media competency. While the Democratic Party posted a handful of breakout clips from each night on its social media pages, the party’s overall activity and outreach on Facebook, Twitter, and especially Instagram — the party’s Instagram account is inexplicably underused — was not strong. While the event’s shorter virtual format might’ve helped the DNC appeal to younger voters, the lack of social media capitalization for such an important virtual event was an enormous missed opportunity to engage with that demographic.

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