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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There is news today about the 2016 presidential campaign that has nothing to do with the growing list of would-be candidates. It's about the big nominating conventions that Democrats and Republicans hold every four years. President Obama signed legislation this afternoon that ends public financing for the conventions. Those huge political extravaganzas will no longer receive millions of dollars in taxpayer support.

And that is not the only change in the works. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Let's start with a little time travel...

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WALTER CRONKITE: I'm Walter Cronkite. And this is our anchor desk for our CBS News-Westinghouse coverage of this 1956 Democratic Convention. And this is the dramatic high point of the convention, coming today...

GONYEA: Back then and for years afterward, it was around-the-clock coverage by the networks. Big news could hit at any time, and it did. At the 1964 GOP convention, bitter party divisions were front and center. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the man that nominee Barry Goldwater beat, issued a stern warning.

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GOV. NELSON ROCKEFELLER: The Republican Party should reject extremism from either the left or the right...

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GONYEA: At the 1980 convention, former President Gerald Ford shocked everyone when he revealed a possible co-presidency if he joined the ticket with nominee Ronald Reagan. It was a bombshell story until CBS went to Lesley Stahl on the convention floor.

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LESLIE STAHL: Walter, a top lieutenant just came and said it's not Ford. They're coming all around me to tell me it's not Ford. Someone told me it was Bush. They're all yelling Bush - all around me. Everybody is yelling Bush, Walter.

GONYEA: Anchorman Cronkite was surprised and amused.

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CRONKITE: (Laughter) Oh, who's writing the script for this one? That's what I want to know.

GONYEA: That moment may have been the last instance of truly unexpected and substantive drama at a nominating convention, and that's exactly the problem.

DON FOWLER: Conventions became theatrical productions.

GONYEA: That's Don Fowler, a member of the Democratic National Committee for four decades, and the man who managed the 1988 Democratic Convention.

These days, news organizations - especially the big, commercial-broadcast networks - continue to question the worth of devoting prime-time space to events with no suspense. Live daytime coverage is long gone except on cable. Fowler says he got complaints from the network back in '88.

FOWLER: We fussed with them for weeks about how much of the convention they were going to cover. They reduced coverage substantially in '88, and they've been trying to do that since them. And I think in 2012, both conventions received as little coverage as any others previously.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, Republicans are planning another big change in 2016. They will hold their gathering months earlier than usual - perhaps in June - in hopes of quickly wrapping up what could be a no-holds-barred fight for the nomination, and to give the GOP nominee a head start on the general election. Further, there's even talk about scaling back events to as few as two days

But Professor Daniel Kreiss, at the University of North Carolina, says these changes in scheduling and coverage don't mean conventions are unimportant.

DANIEL KREISS: I still think conventions become a very significant way that voters can tune into and see sort of the best arguments of each party for why they should elect a particular candidate.

GONYEA: Still, it's no wonder - in a time of budget battles and questions about the relevance of big party nominating conventions - that spending some $18 million in federal money per convention has now come to an end with the president's signature today. The money will instead be used to finance research into childhood diseases.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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