Cable Emerges As Primary Choice

Polls falter but viewers flock to New Hampshire coverage
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As the primary season heated up with bracing victories in New Hampshire for Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), cable news took center stage.

CNN led the cable news ratings race on Jan. 8, the night of the New Hampshire primary battle. The network averaged 3.29 million viewers from 8 p.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday (with 1.35 million of them in the news network's target demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds), according to Nielsen Media Research. For the same period, Fox News Channel attracted 3.06 million viewers (901,000 in the demo). MSNBC trailed with 1.64 million (701,000).

Fox News prevailed in the 8 p.m. hour (when the network's No. 1 show, The O'Reilly Factor, usually airs), averaging 3.26 million viewers from 8 p.m.-9 p.m. compared with CNN's 2.82 million. The 8 p.m. hour was also when the networks declared McCain the victor in the Republican primary.

Viewers are tapping into the election process earlier than in years past. The New Hampshire ratings represented triple-digit increases for CNN and MSNBC compared with the 2004 New Hampshire primary and double-digit increases for Fox News. The New Hampshire race also represented double-digit increases for all of the networks compared with the Iowa caucus Jan. 3.


“The audience is very attuned to the importance of these races,” CNN/U.S. president Jon Klein says. “The stakes were higher and there was a story line that viewers could easily tap into. And you have the emergence of a lot of fresh faces and fresh ideas, and that seems to be invigorating the audience.”

Indeed, voters—especially independent and Democratic voters—have turned out in record numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire. The turnout also stymied pollsters as virtually every poll had given Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) a comfortable lead over Clinton in New Hampshire. Much of the chatter on the networks during primary-night coverage was about those erroneous surveys.

“What was interesting about many of these polls,” Klein says, “is that they stopped polling two days before the actual election. And one thing we knew from the entrance polls was that a sizable portion of voters had just made up their minds that day or the day before.”

CNN did not call the primary for Clinton until about 10 minutes after AP, NBC News, Fox News and others did, instead reporting that AP named Clinton the victor.

“I'm very pleased with the decision we made,” Klein says. But that meant CNN producers were confronted with a “potentially awkward situation.”

“We saw [Obama enter] the room to wild applause while we still had not decided that we felt comfortable calling the race,” Klein says. “So we had to have a discussion about what are we going to do if he gets up and concedes the race?

“And what we decided was that it doesn't matter. We're going to call this thing when we are comfortable that it can be called.”