Networks Vie for Poll Position

News divisions exploit the Web, HD to register with voters
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The Washington, D.C., marathon known as the 2008 presidential election will come to a merciful end about a year from now. The race is the longest in memory, spanning about two years. Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy on Jan. 22, 2007; by comparison, her husband opened his 1992 presidential bid in October 1991, meaning more than eight months additional time to grind coverage through the media machine.

Given the campaign's wide-open nature and the lack of an incumbent (Clinton's First Lady cred notwithstanding), the race has only intensified. There'll be no slowing the pace as we enter the dizzying primary season with the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.

For news divisions, the mobilization has been extensive and significant. “We're planning the January From Hell when it comes to the number of election events we have to cover,” says David Bohrman, senior vice president at CNN.

Already, campaign coverage has become the No. 1 story on broadcast news and across the cable news landscape. Since Oct. 1, the evening newscasts, where the bulk of campaign coverage is aired, had a combined 76 stories about the race compared to 51 for the previous top story, the war in Iraq. And that coverage will increase precipitously as news divisions blanket the primaries and caucuses while embedded campaign reporters (most of whom were assigned to individual candidates as far back as March) work up to daily coverage.

“Everything has become accelerated and we've been responding to that,” says Phil Alongi, executive producer, NBC News Specials and Election Coverage.

If there's more at stake for the candidates, the same is true for the networks' political teams. Alongi, who worked his first campaign in 1980 and has helped plan all six debates on NBC, MSNBC and CNBC this season, travels with a paper shredder.

“People who don't belong there have a way of walking into your workspace,” he explains, “and if you have the questions lying there and someone picks up the questions…I'm not about to start a debate from scratch 12 hours out because I'm concerned that a set of questions has disappeared.”

NBC's dedicated election staff, which also includes personnel at MSNBC, MSNBC.com and CNBC, has ballooned to about 200, including new hires and employees from other units. ABC has beefed up its political staff at ABCNews.com and broadband channel ABC News Now, says political director David Chalian. Although ABC News Now was created to cover the 2004 election, “the digital political staff did not exist the way it does now back in 2004,” he adds.

Gavel-to-gavel convention streaming on Websites is also likely, though specifics have yet to be worked out. ABC News streamed complete convention coverage on ABC News Now in 2004 and will most likely do so again. CBS News has said it will Webcast all open convention sessions live and also provide on-demand clips of all major speeches on CBSNews.com.

News organizations also are attempting to extend their reach by partnering with online communities (see sidebar), with ABC's recent Facebook alliance the latest example. “There is a community on Facebook engaged in political discourse who may not tune in to the 6:30 news,” says Chalian.

DEBATES IN HI-DEF

The campaign also comes in the midst of technical changes in the industry, specifically the conversion from standard definition to hi-def. CNN aired its first HD debate Nov. 15 from Las Vegas and will continue to air more such events. ABC and NBC are planning to carry the political conventions in HD, while Fox News readies to convert to HD early next year. CBS News will unveil its first news program in HD—The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric—in May, followed in the fall by The Early Show. (ABC and NBC's morning shows are already in HD. NBC carries Nightly News in HD.) HD households may not make up a majority, but news organizations are looking for any advantage.

“It's going to take a while before CNN propagates out in hi-def everywhere, but it's beginning to happen,” says Bohrman. “And I think if we get more presence in HD, hopefully by the time we get to the election season we'll have a leg up.”

It remains to be seen how much viewers will embrace thousands of hours of campaign coverage infiltrating every conceivable linear and digital platform. The heavier-than-usual January primary schedule, coming on the heels of the holiday season, may be an early litmus test.

“The fact that we now have the Jan. 3 [Iowa caucuses] looming, no one really knows when people are going to tune out and go away for Christmas,” says NBC's Alongi. “In our off-the-record conversations with the campaigns, even they are uncertain about what they're going to do Christmas week. How is [the campaign] going to play in the middle of Miracle on 34th Street?”

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