CNN Says It's Serious About Election Coverage

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CNN kicked off its own campaign last week in New York, trotting out its star anchors and correspondents for media buyers and advertisers to preview its coverage plans for the 2004 presidential race.

The news net's top stars—from the colorful Crossfire
cast to anchors Lou Dobbs, Wolf Blitzer and Paula Zahn—turned out to share their election predictions and hype the net's "America Votes 2004" coverage. (NewsNight
anchor Aaron Brown was a no-show.)

CNN execs sold the cable network as the elder statesman of cable news, crowing about their organization's breadth of experience.

"Over the past 24 years, we have proven that we are the network of record for covering this process," said Executive Vice President of Ad Sales Greg D'Alba. "We have proven we're the network of record for covering news."

What CNN couldn't tout, though, is a ratings advantage over rival Fox News Channel. The cable news landscape is very different from what it was when President George W. Bush was elected in 2000. Fox News Channel has surpassed CNN in ratings—including during breaking-news events—and competes handily for ad dollars.

D'Alba did predict that CNN, which averaged a 0.7 in prime for the third quarter, would make ratings gains during the election coverage.

But, as much as CNN wants to stay on message over the next year, other stories—from Scott Peterson's trial to the Kobe Bryant case—threaten to become distractions.

"Those stories are part of the cable news universe," senior political analyst Jeff Greenfield acknowledged, "They are not going to be covered as much as smothered."

Still, he cautioned, "we will not be leaving or abandoning this race."

Whether his troops are covering Kobe or former Gov. Howard Dean, CNN News Group President Jim Walton wants his network to "be thoughtful" and give these stories "the appropriate amount of weight." Of course, that amount is widely debated at CNN and across the news industry. "But it's our hope that everything we do at CNN resonates class."

As part of its election coverage, CNN is expanding anchor Judy Woodruff's political newscast Inside Politics
to an hour beginning Nov. 3 and adding a Sunday-morning edition. CNN's reporters and anchors will go on the road in CNN's "Election Express," a bus outfitted as a mobile TV studio and bureau. (ABC News recently unveiled three similar vehicles.)

The network is hoping for a big boost in ad revenue for its coverage. D'Alba estimates that it could pull in "upwards of $30 million" through sponsorships and packages across its properties. Automaker Daimler Chrysler has signed on as a sponsor, and CNN is seeking five more sponsors.

NBC News and MSNBC Senior Vice President of Ad Sales Jim Hoffman said his networks, which also include CNBC and Telemundo's news, will offer advertisers a variety of packaging options. "We have the flexibility to offer packages from $5 million to $16 million, depending on clients' needs."

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