Newt Gingrich's victory in the South Carolina primary last
Saturday made it clear that the Republican race for the presidential nomination
is not going to be over any time soon, as the election cycle has now seen three
different winners in as many early votes.
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
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
"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