Networks, Stations Court Voters

More than ever, they're using Websites to spread the word

With Election Day just a week away, cable networks and local TV stations will soon be able to see the fruits of their labor to educate viewers and get them to register to vote.

This year, more than ever, media companies are using digital platforms—from social networking to streaming video to user-generated content—to deliver their public affairs messages to a broader audience.

A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project says 24% of Americans now learn about the presidential campaign from the Internet, up from 13% in 2004 and just 9% in 2000, according to the History Channel. The network has robust content on past elections and the electoral process on its Website.

“Technology has made it so much easier to disseminate information,” says Meredith Wagner, Lifetime executive VP of public affairs. “Advocacy and resources are so much more accessible to everyone. We used to lick envelopes and mail out information on elections.”

“We need to reach young people,” says Ian Rowe, MTV VP of public affairs. “With new technology, there are so many more ways to get involved, self-publish and organize around issues that matter to these voters.”

Young people are hardly the only group being targeted. Women's networks Lifetime and WE tv are trying to educate women voters and increase voter turnout. Male-skewed programmers Spike TV and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), which airs on three networks, have efforts underway to increase participation in their demo.

And African-American networks BET and TV One are actively trying to sway viewers to head to the polls, as is Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo in the Hispanic community. At BET, the network has slated news specials on candidates and issues, and the news division traveled to both conventions.

“The idea is to energize Hispanics to register, convey the importance of voting, how to do it and what the critical issues are,” says Telemundo President Don Browne. “We are using the power of television to create change.”

At TV stations, local news operations are focused keenly on both local and national elections, with most major station groups providing at least five minutes of airtime to election coverage and candidates.

Online, many are streaming debates and candidates' stump speeches. Some affiliates are holding electronic town hall meetings with candidates. Viewers are also being asked to submit questions for candidates, and upload their photos from local campaign events.

Hearst-Argyle Television's WMUR Manchester, N.H., even worked with YouTube to collect user-generated video from the primaries for its Website.

“The Internet affords us opportunities to tailor coverage so users can come when they are ready,” says Hearst-Argyle VP of News Candy Altman, who oversees the group's “Commitment 2008” program. “We can live-stream and also post excerpts. Content can live longer and you reach more people over the long haul.”

Cable Networks Take on Election Season

In 2004, MTV set an ambitious goal of helping to get 20 million young people to vote. This year, Rowe expects the figure will top 25 million, although MTV has not stated a goal this time.

Through its efforts, which include on-air spots with star wrestlers, WWE is hoping two million more young men will vote. Among women, WE and Lifetime, for example, are hoping to increase participation among the 35 million women who did not vote in 2004.

MTV created “Street Team 08,” a network of 51 young citizen journalists (covering the 50 states and Washington, D.C.) who report by video and mobile updates about the issues and races in their localities.

To reach young men, Spike TV has partnered with the highly rated Ultimate Fighting Championship. Fighters appear in spots that run on-air and in arenas, encouraging fans to vote.

WWE is urging its fans to get involved through its “Smackdown the Vote” campaign, now in its third election. “We want our fans to be engaged and we're always looking for new ways to reach out to them,” says Executive Director Gary Davis. The organization is also including political info in its magazine, including a debate between wrestlers about who they support.

CNN is targeting new voters (which it defines as young people, first-time voters and those who haven't voted in a some time) with its campaign, The League of First Time Voters. The effort features a Website stocked with background on issues and candidates. Users can interact with each other by building profiles for themselves and joining forums. In addition, CNN is partnering with social networking site Facebook so users can interact with one another on that popular site. On-air, CNN is also running special reports that speak to these voters.

Women's cable networks are more active this election than ever. As part of its Every Women Counts campaign, now in its fifth election cycle, Lifetime deployed staffers at the Republican and Democratic conventions to raise awareness of women's issues and female candidates, staging eight events at the two locations. “Our goals are to get women to vote, to run for office, and to get issues women care about into more discussions,” Wagner explains.

On-air, Lifetime is running PSAs that ask viewers to submit comments for the next president about their priorities. John McCain and Barack Obama both cut spots saluting military families that ran during Lifetime's top-rated drama Army Wives. WE also is in the midst of its first election registration drive.

Six major cable operators—Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Cablevision Systems, Charter Communications, Cox Communications and Bright House Networks—have partnered on a video-on-demand channel that reaches 32 million homes with video related to the elections, including debates and speeches.

Station groups are pushing affiliates for creative ways to cover the election. Belo Corp. asks its stations to air one hour of political coverage across the day, including interviews with candidates and debates. In Cincinnati, Scripps-owned WCPO gathers man-on-the-street questions for candidates, while sister WPTV West Palm Beach uses a local political science professor to moderate debates.

Says Scripps President Bill Peterson: “Our stations have turned their coverage into better TV, rather than a candidate standing in front of a camera like a deer in the headlights.”