After Gingrich Surge, TV News Betting on Long Primary Fight
Close race is good news for Sunday morning politics programs
By Andrea Morabito -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/24/2012 8:49:44 AM
And for the TV networks covering the 2012 race, especially the Sunday morning public affairs shows that depend on politics for their bread and butter, the still-competitive contest is just fine with them.
"It's the best possible outcome for us," says Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos. "We want this to be a race."
Viewers are obviously more interested in a close race than a landslide (CNN saw the audience for its coverage of Gingrich's unexpected win in South Carolina up 22% over that for the early call for Mitt Romney in New Hampshire), which CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist calls particularly interesting given the S.C. coverage happened on a Saturday night.
And as long as Gingrich remains up in the polls, the news networks will continue to cover him as a top contender going forward.
"My only bias is to keep the story going and to have a great story to cover," says Betsy Fischer, executive producer of NBC's Meet the Press. "Of course the longer it goes, the more interesting it is and the more there is for us to talk about on the program. Politics is the bread and butter of Meet the Press, so as long as that topic is top of people's minds, that's what we like."
The close race is welcome largely because popular interest in the election is somewhat less this cycle than the hope-and-change spurred masses that followed it intensely in 2008. While the people clearly still want change in 2012, after a year of legislative gridlock over the debt ceiling, deficit reduction and payroll tax cut extensions, they seem less inclined to believe that government can provide it.
"I think it's a wonderful thing for us and I think for the country in a year in which there's extraordinary frustration and anger at the system, that there might be a little bit more interest in the race," Banner says. "It's been challenging to get people interested in politics this year. That's frustrating for those of us in the news business."
One area of politics that viewers have been interested in is the debates, of which there have been plenty (NBC News hosted the 18th on Monday night). At their highpoint, an ABC News debate drew 7.6 million viewers on Dec. 10 before leveling off closer to 5 million viewers in the last two events.
While debate saturation may be somewhat to blame for the stagnating ratings, they are apparently still affecting the election outcomes, with 88 percent of South Carolina voters saying that the debates were a factor in their vote. They have also served the purpose, as they have in past elections, of keeping some campaigns alive longer than their fundraising or organization should warrant.
"Newt Gingrich has really only lasted this long because of his performance in the debates," Banner says. "These debates have given life to candidates where otherwise there wasn't any."
And while Mitt Romney is still the front-runner when it comes to the all-important factors of money and organization, TV producers say there is a persisting (though realistically unlikely) notion that another candidate could jump in the race or the chance of a brokered convention in August (which hasn't happened on the Republican side since 1976), giving news networks an additional storyline to follow into the summer.
"It would make convention coverage a lot more interesting," Fischer says. "That's always an internal debate, are we giving all this network time over to the parties and there's really no news made at conventions? That would certainly not be the case with that."
As for the likelihood of that happening, at this point, it's anyone's guess.
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