In Depth

Networks Go All Out for Super Tuesday

Prime-Time Plans Reflect Interest in Historic Election

Forget unscripted reality shows; it’s politics that’s hot, hot, hot.

Broadcast network coverage of the historic Super Tuesday will be big, big, big. ABC News will air five hours of live coverage starting at 8 p.m. ET. CBS News starts four hours of live coverage at 9 p.m. ET. NBC News, which will have been all Super Tuesday all day and all night on MSNBC, will double up with an hour of coverage on the NBC network at 10 p.m. ET. Fox Broadcasting will update its “American Idol” and “House” audiences three times during the night.

News executives at all three networks say it was not hard to get the precious prime-time real estate to cover the country’s first national primary—another stop on the road to a presidential candidate who will be either a woman, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, or an African-American man, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

So much history in the making may ultimately lead to more extensive convention coverage than broadcasters have been inclined to offer in recent campaigns, when the conventions were relatively cut-and-dried. But those decisions are still a ways away.

In the meantime, it is undeniably exciting, even to network presidents, who recognize the heightened youth, female and ethnic appeal this election is generating well ahead of the traditional political timetable.

They also like to think that their respective networks would have made the same programming decisions even if the entertainment programming pantries weren’t nearly bare because of the 3-month-old Writers Guild of America strike.

“There’s a demand for it, and I think the networks are responding to it,” CBS News Senior VP Paul Friedman said. “Did the fact that there are reruns on all three networks figure in the decision? I can’t tell you that. I’m cynical enough to believe that probably it was more traditional factors like in the case of one network, we never win very much on Tuesday nights with our existing schedule anyway, so what the hell.”

Phil Griffin, the NBC News senior VP whose responsibilities include oversight of politically fixated MSNBC, has a more visceral summary of the Super Tuesday programming appeal:

“People love whodunits and who’s-gonna-winnits.”

The programming on all three networks will be ad-supported. The advertisers are, for the most part, clients who would have been in the Tuesday night programming anyway due to upfront and scatter commitments.

ABC’s coverage may be picked up early in markets where there are primaries or caucuses. ABC News also has built into its format, at 25 minutes and 55 minutes after the hour, five-minute windows in which local stations, whether owned by or affiliated with the network, can cut away for their own coverage.

“That’s something we can do that cable cannot,” ABC News Executive VP Dave Davis said. He said the news division’s discussion about some prime-time coverage on Super Tuesday began after the dramatic New Hampshire primary and was “pretty quick. The excitement is there from the West Coast.”

West Coast viewers will get a special edition of “Nightline.” On the East Coast and in the Central time zone, the network will continue news programming but accommodate the local stations’ late local newscasts. “Good Morning America” correspondent Bianna Golodryga will reprise her role as liaison with the community that gets its political fix on Facebook, with which ABC News hooked up for its successful dual-debate the Saturday night before the New Hampshire primary.

CBS News, which also will offer local cutaways, presumably will benefit from having quiet ratings performer “NCIS” as lead-in in the East and as lead-out in the West.

Mr. Friedman also promises some “really neat technological gizmos that we’ll be using. I’m sure the other networks have their own, which aid the anchors and audiences in understanding what’s going on.”

On NBC, two hours of “The Biggest Loser: Couples,” with Super Tuesday break-ins, is likely to be a solid lead-in to the Super Tuesday special. The only one of the Big Three broadcast news divisions that has a cable news platform, NBC will invite viewers who want more to tune to MSNBC at the end of its prime-time coverage.

However, Mr. Griffin, for one, thinks the results will be known for every state except California by then.

“I don’t think there is going to be a cliffhanger,” he said.