In a presidential election season that began with seismic shifts in political power after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the three major cable news networks, with their voracious appetites, are positioning themselves to give viewers the most complete and insightful coverage from the campaign trail.
In addition to their traditional news coverage, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC will devote untold hours in their broadcast days to the Democratic and Republican candidates’ campaigns, following every gaffe, opinion poll and victory speech. All the while, each will be trumpeting its own strengths to viewers.
Fox News Channel, which declined to be interviewed for this story, is the ratings leader going into the fray, followed by CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and CNN Headline News.
During the 2004 presidential election cycle, the Pew Research Center found cable news trailed only local TV news as a regular source of campaign information for audiences. In several key demographics, including college graduates, young people and affluent Americans, cable was the leading source for campaign news. Pollsters consider these segments “likely voters,” and thus see the information disseminated on cable news as key to voter decision-making.
News executives overseeing the coverage at MSNBC and CNN, professionals who have each been in the business for nearly 30 years, say 2008 already is proving to be like nothing they have ever seen.
“There has never been a political cycle like this. The energy level is high and the interest is high,” said Phil Alongi, the senior vice president of NBC News specials who oversees MSNBC’s political coverage. “I hate to steal a phrase from the candidates but will borrow one: I think people do want change. What is definitely encouraging is that young people are getting involved and want to have a say.”
His counterpart at CNN, Senior VP of Programming and Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman, emphatically agrees. “If you look at the ratings, more and more are watching political events, beginning with the early debates last year, and the viewership has gotten even bigger since then. You hear people talking, which means they’ve begun to engage to cast their own votes. A lot of people are watching to make a decision and then committing to their candidate,” he said.
Although MSNBC had the first two presidential debates beginning last April, CNN took the debate concept to a new frontier last summer with the first of two CNN/YouTube debates—the brainstorm of Mr. Bohrman. The format incorporated questions from people who submitted video inquiries through YouTube that aired live during the debates. “A year ago, it was hard to see that that’s what we’d be doing,” he said. “We knew we wanted to involve new media and the Web.”
CNN-produced debates in November were the highest-rated primary debates on cable for both the Democrats and the Republicans, garnering more than 4 million viewers apiece. The network is co-sponsoring three more candidate face-offs this month alone: with the Congressional Black Caucus on Jan. 21 in Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the Democratic candidates, then with the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 30 at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., for the Republican contenders and Jan. 31 at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood for the Democrats.
The wild gyrations in both parties’ races so far will keep the campaign trail spotlights burning bright heading into what will likely be the definitive moments for both parties: Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when 25 states including California, Illinois and New York hold their primaries.
“It’s almost like a midterm Election Night with the House and the Senate,” said Mr. Alongi. “We’ve never had a situation with so many states having their primaries on the same day. We will cover the key races, doing additional programming leading up to that night as well.” MSNBC’s nightly coverage spans its programs “Hardball” with Chris Matthews, “Tucker” with Tucker Carlson, “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” and “Live With Dan Abrams.”
In just the four years since the last presidential election, improved technology has greatly affected political coverage for the cable and broadcast networks, leading to a better viewer experience with enhanced components on the Internet as well.
“It seems like when we look back at tapes from ’04, it seems ancient, and it’s hard to remember that four years ago, television was linear. It’s completely different now,” Mr. Bohrman said. “For the 2004 Election Night, we anchored coverage from the NASDAQ with an enormous video wall showing votes from every state and multiple feeds—pushing the limits of the video wall to help us relay more information more clearly. That led us to ‘The Situation Room’ [with Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s daily political and hard news program] a couple years later, which led to the new video walls we have now in New York. A lot of colleagues are trying to duplicate that effect with multiple windows.”
Both CNN and MSNBC are anchoring their coverage from new facilities in New York, CNN’s from Time Warner Center and MSNBC’s from the Peacock network’s ancestral home at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
“The election center we’ve built is radically different, with large dynamic displays of data all over the room, taking advantage of incredible graphics, streaming data and editorial resources from our correspondents,” Mr. Bohrman said. “It’s a radical change in how we display information and how clear it is and how much more the viewer receives.”
MSNBC’s previous headquarters in New Jersey created a disconnect with parent NBC, according to Mr. Alongi, who said much of the cable net’s strength and popularity is due to the participation of top network news talent including Brian Williams, Tim Russert, Andrea Mitchell and Tom Brokaw. “[NBC Universal President and CEO] Jeff Zucker realized this and we broke down the walls, literally and figuratively,” he said. “It’s a completely different world. We blew away two of the studios and literally the wall broke down between MSNBC and NBC. We’re all together now, in studios with all the bells and whistles.”
Out in the field on the campaign trail, technology also has made a big difference in the way stories are reported. “We gave everyone small DV cameras to carry with them and transmit,” said Mr. Alongi. “You’re even able to use a phone to transmit quality pictures. Wireless Internet is so much better and you can send streaming video down the pipe. In 2004, we did baby steps, and now we’re taking actual steps.”
CNN’s Mr. Bohrman also is excited about new media leading to enhanced campaign coverage. “In 2004, blogs were just beginning to have an impact. We needed someone to let us know what people on the Web were saying, so we created the role of Internet reporter, covered as a beat just like Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.”
CNN also has deployed its CNN Express Bus, a portable news bureau that can transmit video while in motion. It is a mobile newsroom with work space for 20 people, four high definition paths, WiFi capability and Internet connectivity. “We can interview candidates inside or outside the bus,” said Mr. Bohrman. “Campaigns are pretty mobile, and we’ll be right there with them. It’s a remarkable tool. We’re using it to great advantage now and we’ll dispatch it wherever it needs to be.”
Fox News is running its presidential election coverage under the banner “You Decide 2008” on programs including highly rated “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Hannity & Colmes” and “Special Report With Brit Hume.”