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PBS again goes old-school gavel to gavel while rival broadcast networks let fly with reruns and reality

PBS convention coverage colleagues Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff

Jim Lehrer snaps at the bait; Judy Woodruff delicately wriggles off the hook during their separate phone interviews Wednesday with unclebarky.com.

The quadrennial subject is PBS' renewed vow to be the only broadcast network with gavel-to-gavel coverage of the national political conventions. The Democrats open their four-day show on Monday (Aug. 25) from Denver and the Republicans gather in St. Paul on Sept. 1 to 4.

PBS and its flagship newscast, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, will cover the conventions from their nightly 7 p.m. (central) starts to whenever they finish. ABC, CBS and NBC again will yield just an hour a night on most nights.

Monday's opening prime-time schedules are recited to both Lehrer and Woodruff in hopes of priming their pumps. ABC is offering this summer's ratings-starved biggest loser, High School Musical: Get in the Picture, and two repeats of Samantha Who?.

CBS will counter with reruns of The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men and The New Adventures of Old Christine.

NBC, hoping to inherit a Summer Games afterglow, has a new episode of Deal or No Deal and the premiere of America's Toughest Jobs. Then come the Democrats in prime-time's closing hour.

Lehrer is asked how he'd rebut this.

"I would say to them, 'In other words, you are telling the American people that that stuff is more important than an every-four-year event at which the next president of the United States is going to be nominated?' Give me a break."

Woodruff is thrown the same hanging curveball.

"I don't need to take any shots at them," she says. "They have a mission that's different from us. They're serving an audience that's looking for entertainment as well as information. I'm glad I'm doing what I'm doing. And I know that some of my friends at the networks wish they were taking more time for the conventions."

It's not as if every nook and cranny of each convention won't be exposed in one forum or another. Youtube didn't exist the last time around in 2004. Neither did Comedy Central's The Colbert Report or politico.com. The three all-news cable channels again will have all of their featured blabbers in place. Even the PBS coverage will have twitter and flickr components.

Lehrer, 74, figures that his approach is still the best way to cleanse the palate, cut through the noise and accentuate the issues of genuine import before its enlightened recipients "go and listen to the shouting" if they choose.

"I'm very comfortable doing it the way we do it," he says. "It's the old-fashioned way, no question about it. But in time I think it's going to be seen as the new-fashioned way.

"You've first got to understand what's going on. It's that first step, the straight news step. People want some place they can go, and people they trust. Credibility becomes increasingly important the more there is out there of blogs and iPods as well as cable television and satellite radio and all of that. There's a need to sort through the process first.

"You won't miss a thing from the podium that matters. We're going to show everything in its entirety that cries out in our journalistic judgment to be covered that way. But we're also going to do our own reporting and analysis. So you don't have to shop around. You can just go to one place, and you'll be covered."

Woodruff, 61, primarily will be a floor reporter at the conventions after a long career at CNN that took her through the 1996, 2000 and 2004 elections.

She's amazed at "how fast youtube has come on the scene" since the last pair of party conventions. "And I think it's accelerated this process of completely doing away with deadlines. Every candidate has to respond within seconds. It's the way it is. It's the result of a lot of smart technology. It's the wave of not just the future, but the wave of now."

Still, you're better off eating your nutritive NewsHour spinach before pigging out on all those youtube s'mores.

"We can't afford to abdicate all responsibility," Woodruff says. "For us it's taking the longer look, providing some analysis, turning over the rock, looking under the hood. That's our job. We're not in the business of worrying about reacting on a second's notice, even though we have to be aware of the effect that's having."

After the conventions, Lehrer will begin boning up for his record 11th appearance on an even grander stage. He'll be moderating the first presidential debate, scheduled for Sept. 26th, between presumed nominees Barack Obama and John McCain.

During a stop last Halloween in Dallas, Lehrer told unclebarky.com that he'd had his fill of these pressure-cookers.

"I don't want to do any more debates," he said at the time. "I've done my duty for my country. I've done 10 of those things, and they're scorching to the soul. So I'd just as soon not do any more."

Those words are read back to him.

"You bastard!", Lehrer retorts, good-naturedly it should be said. "You're never supposed to remember what anybody says. Remember what else they used to say? 'Never mind.' "

So what changed his mind?

"They asked me," Lehrer says. "I just feel that anybody who's asked to do that has to do it unless they have a damned good reason not to. And I just didn't have one. The reason I gave to you, that I've got a scorched psyche, just didn't seem good enough to me -- then or now."