Here’s something on which Democrats, Republicans, George W. Bush and I totally agree: This is one of the most crucial presidential elections in history. Opinion polls show the vast majority of the people think so too. Interest in this election and belief in its importance is far higher than four years ago.

But you would never know that from the greedheads who run the networks. The Democratic National Convention is now on, and the major, over-the-air networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — are devoting barely three hours each to the whole thing. The plan was to show Bill Clinton’s speech Monday, and an hour each of speeches Wednesday and Thursday by John Kerry and John Edwards.

And that’s all. They devoted far more time last month to the long-expected funeral of the long-brain-dead Ronald Reagan. That was about nostalgia and the past. They did that, but they ignore our future. Once every four years, the current, rising and future stars in each party come together to nominate candidates, yes, but to also share their views, personalities and ideas with a national audience.

In 1984, Mario Cuomo made a stirring speech that people still talk about; the brilliant Barbara Jordan delivered another one a few years before. At the 1992 Republican Con-vention, Pat Buchanan made a speech that helped America see just how scary he was. Were the networks then playing by the rules they have adopted this year, they would have shown none of this.

This year, the vast majority of both conventions will be totally ignored by the networks. On Tuesday, they planned to give us none of the Democrats, but instead to enrich our minds with the likes of “Big Brother 5” (CBS), “Last Comic Standing” (NBC) and “5 Perfect Summer Parties” (ABC).

Why are they doing this? Because they calculate that they can make more money giving us the usual garbage. Andrew Heyward, vice-president of CBS News, said if they really covered the conventions “we would spend a lot of time and money doing something that really has very, very minimal news value.”

In other words, the nation’s future is far more likely to be impacted by “Big Brother 5” than by Ronald Reagan Jr. talking about the importance of stem-cell research. Heyward’s toady comments are, of course, bullshit; this is all about money. The networks think they can make more serving up the same old crap. “So what else is new?” you shrug. “What’s the big deal?”

Well, here is what few people know: CBS, NBC and ABC do not own the airwaves. They do not own the frequencies on which they broadcast. You do.

You own them; we all own them. The government grants the networks temporary licenses to use them (for eight years at a time) and as a condition, any network and any station is supposed to spend a certain amount of time broadcasting things that are “in the public interest.”

That’s why television started carrying news way back when, and why they originally broadcast “gavel to gavel” coverage of the entire conventions. They were expected to. They feared they might lose their licenses otherwise, and a license to own a network is pretty much a license to print money.

Why did the government feel it could demand a certain amount of programming from broadcast media, and put other restrictions on them? Simple. Theoretically, there is no limit to how many newspapers can exist, but there is only a certain amount of space on the broadcast spectrum.

That’s why they used to demand that the three big networks set aside a certain amount of time to inform us, as opposed to entertaining us.

We used to worry that they weren’t doing enough. Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, famously said back in 1961 that he feared TV was becoming “a vast wasteland.”

Twenty years later, another FCC chair, Mark Fowler, said that he thought there was nothing wrong with regarding the airwaves as just another “toaster;” another commodity for sale. He was presiding over the airwaves when they dropped the “fairness doctrine” that stations air all sides of public issues.

By now, many of you are thinking that I am having a hissy fit over nothing, because the convention is going to be televised at much greater length by various cable outlets, and public television is also showing it every night.

That is true. If you want to find the conventions, are well-educated and have access to an array of media, you can do so. However, that isn’t everybody. Shocking as it might seem to all of us yuppies, there are millions of Americans who don’t have cable and don’t have the Internet.

Some of them don’t even get The New York Times. They rely on what they see on the networks. They may be trapped in airport lounges or barbershops or otherwise commuting, and be at the mercy of whatever the gods put on the telescreens. Long ago, I was a little boy watching a pretty bad Western soap opera called “Cheyenne,” when to my annoyance the network cut in to return to coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

There wasn’t anything else to watch — it was on all three channels — and so I watched. That was the night they nominated John F. Kennedy.

Soon, I forgot cowboys and found myself caught up in it, the nominating speeches, the demonstrations and balloons and the majestic yet nutty roll call of the states. (“Hawaii, land of endless enchantment, casts 14 1/2 votes for …”)

That started a lifelong interest in how this nation governs itself and elects its leaders. Hard to imagine this happening very often today. I fear this means another generation so disconnected from the way things work that in many cases, they don’t know that there is anything to miss out on.

That ought to worry all of us, especially the haves.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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