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Viewer Interest High in ’08 Race

Nov 4, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Public interest in the presidential sweepstakes hit very high levels early on—and has stayed there. Of all the elements that distinguish the 2008 presidential campaign, that is the one aspect that particularly warms the hearts of the executives directing the political coverage for national TV news operations.
The current race for the office of president—being billed as “the $3 billion campaign” because of the candidates’ big fundraising and spending—has generated unusually high interest. It’s marked by the absence of an incumbent from the crowded race, high candidate star power, the potential for gender and/or ethnic breakthroughs, serious foreign and domestic issues and a long lead-up to what may amount to a monthlong primary season that decides both parties’ nominees by Feb. 6.
In ABC News-Washington Post polls, the number of people who characterize themselves as following the 2008 race closely was at 65 percent in February and rose to 69 percent at the end of September.
Ten of the 16 debates held since May on CNN, Fox News, ABC and Univision have attracted more than 2 million viewers.
TV news organizations are playing to that interest as never before with their limitless digital capacity and the public’s increasing use of the Web.
That pays off in more than one way.
By enabling the networks to do the incremental political reporting they once had no capacity to do, the Internet helps them to be smarter about when they feel it’s time for a major piece on-air about a candidate. That has allowed them to flex some journalistic muscle and to become players in, not followers of, the campaigns, said NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd.
“I want them calling us just as frequently as they call [the major newspapers],” Mr. Todd said. “Ten years ago, they didn’t do that.”
Creating more politically related products that attract more eyeballs creates more opportunities to sell advertising—mdash;whether it’s MSNBC’s all-politics “Super Tuesdays” or debates (which are expensive to stage). No specific political sales data or projections were available from TV ad executives.
CNN’s recently relaunched Politics.com registered 1.1 million hits Wednesday, said CNN Political Director Sam Feist. The political ticker has become so popular it has spawned tickers about key early-decision states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Florida.
ABC’s “The Note” now publishes three editions daily on ABCnews.com’s Politics page. ABC News Political Director David Chalian said political junkies “really want a stream” of information.
NBC’s “First Read” at MSNBC.com produces morning and late-afternoon versions.
Generating revenue is no small plus when there is constant belt-tightening by all TV news organizations. That’s especially true this year, when there is more digital politicking to cover and more digital space to fill.
“We would never ratchet down,” Mr. Chalian said.
Indeed, Mr. Fest said, “This is the time to invest money in covering politics.” CNN has created mini-bureaus in key primary states and has people fanning out from those locations to catch up with candidates.
It also has a traveling bureau/newsroom/studio in its red, white and blue bus, the CNN Express, which has logged some 25,000 miles since hitting the road in August.
While news divisions may be forced to keep in touch with the second- and third-tier candidates by phone most of the time, they agree they can not get too chintzy on their political staffing and spending.
The information collected every day that once would have gone only into internal memos now is posted on the networks’ Web pages for consumption by the politically attuned and astute public.
Call it the Beltway class, or the chattering class, or the political establishment, the sources of and audience for political coverage and discussion have grown exponentially.
“It’s thousands of people now,” Mr. Todd said. “That’s what the Internet has done.”
The 2008 election promises to have something for every one of them.

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