Politics Unusual

With hot races still ahead, cable networks reap ratings and rake in cash

Just after 1 a.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, Feb. 6, as a marathon Super Tuesday of primaries and caucuses in 24 states finally slowed down, a beaming NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert summed up the state of the Democratic race.

“This goes on. There is no front-runner,” he marveled of the high-profile battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. “Super Tuesday did not settle the Democratic race.”

And those words were music to the ears of the red-hot cable news networks. As evidenced by skyrocketing ratings for CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, the 2008 election cycle has captivated the country thanks to a wide-open battle for both parties' nominations.

“The problem for these political parties is that they've got to give these nominations to somebody,” says David Rhodes, director of newsgathering for Fox News Channel. “But it's not a problem for us in the television business.”

The cable networks know that once the presidential race gets down to simply two candidates, they'll have to get creative to hang onto that momentum. But thanks to the tight race between the Democrats, Republican Mitt Romney's surprising stand-down and the emerging drama about prospective vice presidential running mates, they don't have to worry about it just yet.

For now they can enjoy the windfall that has come with the 2008 election, both in viewers and advertising dollars.

The cost of deploying people and equipment to cover the primaries and caucuses represents a huge outlay, but the return on investment in terms of brand exposure cannot be underestimated.

Already, the Democratic and Republican debates for the 2008 campaign account for seven of the top 10 most-watched debates in cable news history. And CNN set the latest record last month in Los Angeles when more than 8 million people tuned in to the first debate between Clinton and Obama.

ABC News holds the debate record this season with more than 9 million viewers for January's Democratic face-off in New Hampshire. The broadcast networks did varying amounts of coverage on Super Tuesday but were felled by entertainment programming on Fox and NBC. However, coverage on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC gave the cable networks increases on their nightly averages and enormous gains compared to the Super Tuesday 2004 turnout.

From 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., CNN averaged 3.16 million viewers (1.4 million of them in news' target demographic of 25-54-year-olds), representing a 295% increase in total viewers and 464% increase in the demo compared to the 2004 Super Tuesday. Fox News averaged 2.54 million total viewers, 873,000 in the demo, for increases of 161% and 147% compared to 2004. And MSNBC pulled in 1.75 million total viewers, 849,000 in the demo, for increases of 458% and 540%, according to Nielsen live-plus-same-day numbers.

The juiced ratings are coming during a healthy scatter market for cable news. (Campaign cash is a mixed bag for broadcasters and especially local stations, which are required by federal election standards to give candidates the lowest unit price on airtime; see sidebar.)

As the race narrows to two candidates, executives expect advocacy advertising to ramp up. Add to that the lack of scripted drama on TV thanks to the writers' strike, and cable news is in a strong negotiating position.

“We never really plan for huge candidate spending, but we realize now that it's going to come our way in a big way,” says Greg D'Alba, COO of CNN ad sales. “You couple that with advocacy ads and what has been a strong scatter market, and you have in a very good way a perfect storm for the news business.”

The morning after Super Tuesday, the Clinton campaign talked to CNN about a national ad buy; she had already bought extended time for a “town hall” on Hallmark Channel on the eve of Super Tuesday. Obama began running national ads on CNN and MSNBC in mid-January. And Republican candidates John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney spent $1 million collectively on Fox News in the week leading up to Super Tuesday.

“We'll see if they come back,” says Paul Rittenberg, senior VP of ad sales for Fox News. “I'm sure they're each assessing where they need to be.”

National buys are unusual this early in election campaigns. For instance, in 2004 CNN didn't get national political advertising until the spring, when John Kerry and George W. Bush emerged as the de facto Democratic and Republican nominees.

“Whoever the Democratic nominee is,” adds Rittenberg, “I'd be very, very surprised if they don't buy us as well. Whoever it is will need to reach out to [Fox News' conservative] audience during the general election; they have to. And it's a relatively efficient way to do it.”

All hands on deck

The star wattage of the candidates, particularly on the Democratic side, has fed into a very tight race on both sides of the political aisle. Viewers, and ad dollars, have naturally followed.

“It's a wide-open election and the first time we've had no incumbent from either party since the late 1920s [president or vice president],” says ABC's George Stephanopoulos. “We have an economy people believe is in a recession, and we are coming off a long war. There is a lot at stake and people get that.”

So with the stakes—and viewership—so high, the cable networks are expanding coverage until both parties pick a candidate. Since Romney dropped out, McCain is all but assured the GOP nod, but many pundits don't see the Democratic nomination shaking out until at least March 4, when Ohio and Texas weigh in.

But coverage ramps up around events, and there are plenty before then. At presstime, Fox News still hadn't received an RSVP from Obama for its planned debate on Feb. 11 in Washington, D.C., the day before the so-called Potomac Primary when Virginia, Maryland and D.C. go to the polls. MSNBC plans to host a Democratic debate in Ohio on Feb. 26, days before the primaries there and in Texas, a huge delegate state. Additionally, Clinton has pushed for a debate a week, which would be even better for the cable networks.

“Our coverage will be pedal to the metal until there is some resolution,” says CNN/US president Jon Klein. “It's an all-hands-on-deck, battle stations kind of situation.”

But the networks also will be careful not to get too wrapped up in any one night, beginning Tuesday night with the primaries in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Phil Griffin, the NBC News senior VP in charge of MSNBC's coverage, says news divisions must stay focused on the big picture now with the race so tight.

“We are not just going to look at Tuesday, because we know next Tuesday won't determine the [Democratic] candidate,” he says. “You have to look ahead to Ohio and Texas, and that will be integrated into our coverage until then.”

On to November

But at some point the parties will settle on their candidates, and then the real task begins for the cable networks: how to keep up the momentum through November. This is when the cable news executives say they will call on what they have learned from this election so far.

And the first lesson is that for this election, viewers seem to want coverage focused on issues. “Substance wins, that has been the biggest takeaway from our election coverage this season,” says CNN's Klein. “Viewers don't want BS horse-race coverage. They don't want nasty, ugly, mudslinging attacks. And they want us to stay out of the way as much as possible.”

Wonk-speak and policy minutia may not get the 72-point headlines, but anecdotal evidence suggests voters appreciate specifics—and are less swayed by the klieg lights of celebrity. Endorsements from Oprah Winfrey and Ted Kennedy have so far had little discernible effect. MSNBC's Griffin points to the big Obama rally in Los Angeles featuring Winfrey two days before Clinton's big win in California.

“None of them worked,” he says, also highlighting Kennedy's endorsement of Obama in Massachusetts, site of another Clinton win. “We get caught up in it, but you have to be careful. They are good headlines but I am not sure if anyone votes because someone tells them to. But they certainly are part of the entire fabric.”

The cable news networks will have center stage again in late August and early September with the conventions in Denver and St. Paul, Minn., which the broadcast networks tend to dismiss as glorified infomercials. And while Election Day is nearly nine months away, the cable networks are optimistic they can avoid voter—and viewer—fatigue from a very long race and keep their numbers up all the way through November.

“It will slow down, but I do think there will be a larger-than-average amount [of attention] paid to this,” Griffin says. “It doesn't just stop when the candidates are announced.”

Fox News' Rhodes adds that so far viewership has only grown, and he doesn't expect it to ebb significantly as an energized electorate moves toward the nominating conventions at the end of the summer.

“Everything we've seen is just sustained interest in this,” he says. “People want to see more events. They tune in on the big nights and they tune in on the small nights, too. There's just a tremendous amount of interest in the whole story.”