Hillary Clinton's tears at a New Hampshire diner on the eve of the primary may go down in history as a turning point for the former First Lady or, ultimately, a footnote in a failed attempt to connect with voters the way her husband—the Empathizer in Chief—did. Barack Obama's unpredictable popularity in Iowa, and his unpredictable deflation in New Hampshire, have made this early election season dramatic.
The Republican field is too close to call, with Mike Huckabee coming from out of nowhere, Mitt Romney falling backward and Sen. John McCain, whose campaign was once nearly bankrupt, rejuvenated.
But at a time when voters have turned out in record numbers in the first two primary states, broadcast news divisions have ceded live coverage to their cable brethren. Neither CBS nor NBC interrupted primetime schedules to air meaningful coverage of the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primaries. Granted, NBC News' Brian Williams and Tim Russert held court on sister cable network MSNBC, but there they had to tolerate the sophomoric shenanigans of Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, et al.
ABC News has been the only broadcast network to step up to the plate. And viewers are paying attention. Back-to-back primetime debates on Saturday Jan. 5 attracted big audiences. More than 7 million people watched the Republican debate, and an impressive 9.36 million tuned in to the Democrats.
In a National Election Pool exit poll conducted on the day of the New Hampshire primaries, 78% of Democratic voters and 75% of Republican voters said the debates played a very important role in their decision. ABC's half-hour New Hampshire primary coverage on Tuesday night didn't generate giant ratings, but the network was once again alone among broadcast networks in any meaningful live coverage. If you turned on CBS, you got The People's Choice Awards. Over on NBC, it was back-to-back episodes of The Biggest Loser.
To be sure, news may not get the ratings that even a rerun of Law & Order: SVU does. But at a time when the Writers Guild strike is strangling primetime, why not throw some airtime to the news divisions?
Broadcast TV is still the biggest game in town. And news was at one time considered a public service.
The 2008 presidential election is a big story. How this campaign ends will have a profound effect on the lives of millions of Americans.
In the primaries yet to come, particularly with the strike crippling network television, the future of the country is one reality show with a built-in audience. Broadcast networks should serve it.