In Depth

Landslide for TV

Soaring Ad Expenditures, Record Ratings Mark Precedent-Setting Presidential Election

The 2008 race for the presidency has been memorable for many reasons, not the least of which is the jaw-dropping effect it has had on the television industry.

The campaign brought to media companies a record $750 million in advertising revenue—of which local stations and the broadcast and cable networks reaped 90%, helping offset a precipitous drop in other types of TV ad buys as the economy stumbled toward recession. And it also reinvigorated cable news channels, helped fuel ratings records for politically incorrect comedy shows and dramatically raised the profile of some TV stars.

While the fat lady has not even begun to sing yet, what soon may get dubbed “The Great Campaign of 2008” can be summed up as a race of record-smashing, eye-popping impact.
Among the highlights:

Ad Windfall

The unexpectedly long race between Democratic hopefuls, followed by nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s decision not to take federal funding and the limits it would impose on his fundraising, unleashed an unprecedented wave of political ad spending.

Political ads appeared in places not seen in recent years: the Olympics, soap operas and NFL games.

For the first time, cable systems were used extensively as ad vehicles for the primaries as well as the general election.

The national broadcast TV networks, which hadn’t seen presidential campaign ads in 12 years, sold time to the campaigns of both Sen. Obama and the Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain.

Local stations generated unexpected revenue twice—first because the tightness of the Democratic race forced the contenders to extend spending to more states, then because the Obama campaign’s decision to skip federal financing allowed it to spend far more than the $84 million the government gave the McCain campaign.

Cable networks also attracted more political advertising than ever before.

Long-term impact: Bid adieu to federal financing of presidential campaigns (or maybe say hello to a new way of doing it). John McCain’s inability to match Barack Obama’s spending under the constraints of federal money certainly means no major-party presidential candidate will ever spend less than $150 million in the fall campaign again.

Higher Ratings

Ratings generally rose for presidential campaign programming, whether it was straight news coverage or comedy material about the campaign.

While broadcast network viewership wasn’t at pre-cable heights of yore, primary debates, primary election coverage, party conventions and nominee debates were generally up from the recent past, and cable news channels saw the election fuel higher ratings and interest all year.

Nielsen Media Research reported that the second presidential debate—the highest-rated this year—drew 63.2 million viewers, compared with the 62.5 million for the most-watched 2004 debate between President George W. Bush and Democratic opponent Sen. John Kerry. The vice presidential debate between Democratic candidate Sen. Joe Biden and Republican candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, however, exceeded that number, with 69.9 million people watching. That’s more than double the number who watched the 2004 veep debate.

The conventions also generated significant ratings growth from recent years, with Sen. McCain’s closing-night speech drawing 38.9 million viewers, a slightly better showing than Sen. Obama’s speech, which attracted 38.4 million viewers. Gov. Palin’s acceptance speech at the GOP convention also generated major ratings.

Nielsen reported that Sen. Obama’s speech was the highest-rated non-sports program among African American households in 11 years.

There also were signs that some of the politics-related programming was attracting younger viewers than news programming traditionally does.

ABC beat all broadcast and cable competitors on three of the four big debate nights.

Network and cable entertainment programs that targeted the news also did well.

Media Stars

“Saturday Night Live’s” Amy Poehler and Tina Fey did breakout portrayals of Sen. Hillary Clinton and Gov. Palin. Sen. Clinton (the real one) even brought up Ms. Poehler’s sympathetic portrayal during one of the Democratic presidential debates.

CBS’ Katie Couric may still have ratings woes, but her interview with Gov. Palin set the presidential campaign’s agenda for more than a week and produced a boomlet of favorable press for the “Evening News” anchor.

NBC’s Tom Brokaw proved that you can go home again, taking on the difficult position of filling in for the late Tim Russert as “Meet the Press” host, most notably landing the Oct. 18 interview with Gen. Colin Powell, in which the former Secretary of State endorsed Sen. Obama.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Brokaw, acting as a go-between, managed to temper some of the Republican ire at MSNBC by negotiating for Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews to stop hosting the broadcast network’s big political event coverage and return to their contractual commentator roles. Also at NBC, political director Chuck Todd suddenly was a rising star.

As the 2008 race for president draws to a conclusion, two big questions remain.

For cable news channels, it’s how to replace their political campaign coverage. For media companies, it’s how to replace the ad revenue the campaigns generated.