The cable news networks were able to parlay the election-induced ratings bump into a 10% year-over-year revenue jump since October 2007, according to research firm SQAD.
Buoyed by the long and high-profile race for the Democratic nomination between Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), the ad-dollar increases for CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC significantly outperformed the 3% average ad revenue hike across all basic-cable networks for the same period.
Researcher SNL Kagan estimated that the three big cable news networks will rake in around $1.4 billion in gross advertising revenue this year, adding that Fox News will capture 47% of gross ad spend in the category versus 40% for CNN and 13% for MSNBC.
“The big money for the first half of the year is in the general retail market,” said Greg D'Alba, executive vice president and chief operating officer of CNN Ad Sales.
For the month of May as the Clinton-Obama race came down to the wire, CNN got a big bounce in eyeballs. Its total viewers in primetime during May averaged 984,000, up 59% from 618,000 a year ago.
CNN also saw a major bump in its online advertising, bagging 14 multiplatform sponsors for its election coverage so far this year, compared with just four in the prior presidential year. They include AARP, AT&T, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, Cisco, ExxonMobil, Hyundai, Sharp and the Society for Human Resource Management.
But Fox News has bragging rights, too. It's still tops in the ad-friendly adult 25-54 demo with an average 357,000 in primetime during May, up a healthy 14% year-over-year. CNN was next with 308,000, but it enjoyed a 70% jump over last May. MSNBC also saw a big year-over-year gain, up 64% to 277,000.
While starting from a much smaller ad revenue base, MSNBC saw a 48% bump in ad dollars from Oct. 1-June 12, according to SQAD. Fox News and CNN were both up single-digits.
And now, with both main parties' presumptive nominees selected, the direct political advertising windfall -- upward of $3 billion for all of TV -- is arriving in full force.
While some cable news executives said the ratings jumps are as much due to more viewers becoming news junkies, it will be tough for them to keep up anywhere near these numbers with any consistency after the November election.