Viewers Electing Not to Watch YetDebates have helped primary season, but broadcast news execs say interest has been slow to build 2/06/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern
The 2012 presidential primary season
has already been going on in earnest
for nine months now, but so far it has
been a slow build to get viewers beyond
the political junkies interested in the action.
“It’s been challenging to get people interested
in politics this year,” says Jon Banner, executive
producer of ABC’s This Week. “That’s frustrating
for those of us in the news business.”
Betsy Fischer, executive producer of NBC’s
Meet the Press, adds: “I think this time we’ve seen
interest maybe not as much earlier in the process.
People are just now starting to tune in more and
are becoming more engaged in things.”
There have been 19 GOP primary debates
so far this election cycle, but
despite the surfeit, some broadcast
execs say it has helped spur
viewer interest in the election.
“The only thing that has garnered
any interest at all has been
the debates,” Banner says.
Others, however, believe viewers may be
growing weary. After hitting a viewership high
for ABC’s Dec. 10 debate with 7.63 million viewers,
the audience for debates has dropped off,
although NBC’s Jan. 23 event came within about
a half-million viewers of that December high.
“With the debate coverage you’ve seen a dropoff,
I think, maybe just because there has been
such a saturation of debates,” Fischer says.
But everyone can agree it has been great theater—
and great for certain candidates, especially
Newt Gingrich, who has taken to creating debates
made for television by playing off the audience’s
reactions and getting into heated exchanges
with the moderators. And his performance
seems to have paid off for him: In the South
Carolina primary that Gingrich
somewhat surprisingly won, 88
percent of voters said the debates
were a factor in their decision.
“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 that lifeline comes in the form of not only
free TV publicity and increased voter interest,
but the crucial aspect of fundraiser dollars.
“[Gingrich] is already one up on Lazarus;
people declare him dead, and then he rises
from the dead and he comes back,” jokes Bob
Schieffer, anchor of CBS’ Face the Nation.
Though Gingrich came in a distant second
to Mitt Romney in the Florida primary last
week, Gingrich’s failure to concede defeat
means everyone in TV news is not expecting
him to drop out anytime soon, and in fact are
hoping the Republican race lasts as long as
possible. “It’s the best possible outcome for us;
we want this to be a race,” Banner says.
“My only bias is to keep the story going and
to have a great story to cover,” Fischer says. “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 bread and butter for
Meet the Press so as long as that topic is top of
people’s minds, that’s what we like.”
And there is, of course, the lingering possibility
that the Republican race could go all
the way to a brokered convention, something
that hasn’t happened since 1976, when Ronald
Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford.
If that happens, the August convention,
which usually offers a lot of pomp and circumstance
but not much else, would turn into
a real news event.
“As a reporter, I hope it does [go to convention]
because it just would be so much
fun,” Schieffer says. “I kind of hope that is