Jim Lehrer believes in the power of -- and need for -- national political conventions and formal political debates, even though they are poor ratings attractions for the main networks. 

In 2000, network ratings for the conventions dropped. On the opening night of that convention, NBC ran a rerun of "Third Watch" and drew nearly twice as many viewers as watched ABC's convention coverage.

This year, ABC cut its convention coverage in half. Despite the poor ratings, a survey by the Pew Research Center found, "More than six in 10 Americans (63 percent) think it really matters ... who wins the 2004 presidential election ... compared with 45 percent who expressed that view in June 2000."

During each night of the Democratic and Republican conventions, Lehrer will be live on PBS for three hours during prime-time. 

I asked Lehrer why, in these days of few surprises at national conventions, it is still worthwhile to cover them. He responded by e-mail:

Surveys and other evidence continue to say many American voters do not start concentrating on the presidential election until the conventions happen. That's when the "undecideds" -- who end up deciding the outcome -- begin to focus on their choices.

Some journalists see the conventions in an old fashioned cop-shop way. If the candidates are all known and there are no floor fights, etc. then there is no story. I disagree with that. The story is different but it remains important. Here now are the nominees and their positions being offered in the best light each side can manage. The story centers around their message and the accompanying questions such as how well did they express it, how consistent is it with what they've been saying and doing, how is it going down with the electorate, etc., etc. It requires context reporting and analysis.

The political conventions are among the few "shared" national political events left. The others are the debates. Journalism organizations that say the conventions are not important are essentially saying the election of a president is not important. We are not in the business of making events, only in covering them.

The Pew results say it all. This is one of the most important presidential elections we've had in a long time. Important issues with long-term implications are on the table to be resolved. The United States of America is the most powerful nation in the world. All Americans should be involved in the debate over how we exercise our enormous power. The vehicle to do that is the presidential election.

Is there anything going on that is more important than that?

Besides PBS and C-Span, the bulk of televised convention coverage in 2004 will come from cable networks and a new project recently announced by ABC News. CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and C-Span will all provide extensive convention coverage. But ABC, without a cable network, has something new planned.

ABC's Peter Jennings will anchor 19 hours of live coverage that most people will not be able to see. ABC will broadcast the coverage on digital cable. The Chicago Tribune reported:

Roughly 80 percent of ABC's affiliates are outfitted for digital broadcast, and digital compression technology allows them to broadcast both a high-definition television feed and one or two additional D2 channels.

But the broadcast signal will be available only to the relatively low number of viewers who have a digital tuner, in the form of an over-the-air antenna or a digital cable box. And viewers with digital cable will only get the signal if their cable operators have agreed to carry the station's local D2 signal.