In Depth

After the Election, What of Cable News?

Nets Try to Break Boom-Bust Cycle

The 2008 presidential campaign season has been a long and heady one for the cable news networks, which have telecast and heavily promoted 23 primary debates and used plot-changing primary nights to generate double-digit ratings increases.

But the history of cable news viewership is a roller coaster of steep highs, reflecting major news stories, followed by deep drops.

This presidential campaign has provided such a sustained high for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC that cable news followers are asking whether the cable news channels risk a crash when the political drama subsides, or whether they can hold on to any of their expanded audiences after the election.

Dr. Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, believes cable news can sustain some of the newfound interest in politics. Indeed, it’s about time that television, which he said has gotten pretty good at covering elections and campaigns, figured out how to cover governance, he said.

Whether Illinois Sen. Barack Obama becomes this country’s first black president or New York Sen. Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman president—or Arizona Sen. John McCain holds the White House for the Republicans—“there will be an excitement” the news networks can capitalize on, Dr. Sabato said.

Like the politicians they cover, he said, the news organizations “have to have a plan to make the transition work.”

Ordinarily, the sort of big news stories that drive up news ratings do not last long enough or arrive predictably enough to translate directly into higher ad rates. But the cable news networks began planning in 2006 for this presidential campaign, which produced high-interest developments and debates (which are expensive for the news nets to stage) starting last fall.
Isolating CPM increases is difficult because much advertising in political programming is sold as part of a larger package.

However, “The revenue has been there really since the fourth quarter of last year,” said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media Intelligence Campaign Media Analysis Group.
The cable news networks are trying to maintain the focus on politics even as the time between primaries lengthens and the presidential nominating conventions approach.

The surge of interest in the election has jostled the cable news network programming, but not their rankings. Fox News Channel has installed “America’s Election HQ” in the 5-6 p.m. weekday slot long occupied by “The Big Story” (which has not been canceled) and John Gibson (currently popping up on other Fox News shows).

A Fox News spokeswoman said the news channel would let its figures, including charts showing that Fox News retains more of its big-event viewers than CNN or Fox, do its talking for this story.

Because Fox News has gained the least ratings during the election, it likely has the smallest fall awaiting it when the political ratings subside.

CNN, which has improved its standing as the second-place cable news network with a number of primary/caucus night wins, has delayed the launch of a show specially tailored for former weekend “Today” anchor Campbell Brown. Instead, it has assigned her a new 8 p.m. weeknight hour all about politics. CNN also has gotten some ratings traction with new weekend programs “Ballot Bowl” and “This Week in Politics.”

MSNBC, which is running an improved third in the cable news race, has launched “The Race for the White House,” a weekday showcase (and added assignment) for chief White House correspondent David Gregory. Starting today it will assign a weekday afternoon hour to chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell.

Not everyone expects the fascination of the public with campaign coverage to remain buoyed indefinitely.

Mr. Tracey said flatly that viewer interest is “not sustainable” once the contest narrows down to two candidates.

The most dramatic race, between Democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama,
continues to generate a lot of sparks. And Sen. John McCain’s Phoenix-like rise from no-shot to Republican nominee is at the stage in which only moments such as last week’s gaffes produce headlines—until the focus turns to his choice of running mate.

But the cable networks have succeeded in making advertising hay while the sun shines, Mr. Tracey said. They’ve attracted new issue advertising—from energy companies to the AARP with its “Divided We Fail” campaign. He said cable news networks have bolstered their corps of influential audience members and may be able to hold on to them.

That might improve the networks’ bottom lines by giving them a more attractive audience profile to sell to marketers.

CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein says the way to guard against campaign fatigue and ratings slump is to steer away from the “same old kabuki arguments” and wars of words waged by carefully counterbalanced partisans. Rather, he’s aiming toward the “aggressively independent” position and the “free-form and free-wheeling” conversations he has been targeting since CNN dumped “Crossfire” three years ago.

Mr. Klein said he doesn’t pretend that the increasingly polemic Lou Dobbs speaks in the voice he envisions for CNN.

Indeed, it is “Anderson Cooper 360,” along with Wolf Blitzer’s “The Situation Room,” that demonstrate the tenor and volume with which he thinks CNN can prove that opinion is not the only thing that wins in cable news.

This year, CNN’s “Anderson Cooper” is beating Fox’s “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren” by 16% in the 25-54 demo.

Phil Griffin, the NBC News senior VP who is executive in charge of MSNBC, said the MSNBC lineup’s personalities and NBC News stars are working together as never before. The two groups, housed under the same NBC News headquarters roofs in New York and Washington, D.C., since last fall, are doing particularly well on “Super Tuesdays,” as MSNBC calls the weekdays on which the programming goal is all politics all the time.

“This election is so interesting, everybody wants to be part of it,” Mr. Griffin said.
Add the “edgy” MSNBC voices and the NBC News stalwarts together and the result is that his neighborhood gym had MSNBC on the majority of screens recently.

“It’s never happened before,” Mr. Griffin said.

With the resolution of the political drama that’s captivating audiences right now will come an inevitable ratings slump. The question is how far the networks will drop off.
Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson agrees that what has gone up must come down.

To think otherwise, he said, “is probably wishful thinking.”