How Campaign Remade Media

Nov 9, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Barack Obama’s historic campaign for the presidency brought a sea-change in the way consumers access, personalize and share news and information. That transformation was happening with or without the election, but the campaign activated millions of young people already accustomed to consuming media in different ways.
The media winners were the ones that fed the public’s desire for news where and when they wanted it: 24-hour cable TV news; participatory blogs that aggregate news of a political bent; Web sites that allow users to access media on their own terms (YouTube) and those that allow users to communicate and organize with each other (Facebook).
Losers were the one-way media of the past: While the broadcast networks had their moments, they were more marginal than four years ago. Network prime time, bereft of new hits and attempting to appeal to a distracted population, fell by double digits in viewership this fall.
The question isn’t so much if this is a permanent shuffling of the pecking order—it is—but how much of the election-fueled gains will have a lasting effect for, say, the Huffington Post, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow or YouTube.
“Users are sophisticated about finding the targeted coverage they want,” said Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News and a consultant for the Monitor Group. “They are not a passive herd that can be shoved into a paddock because you want them to be there.”
Television News
On Election Night, nearly 79 million people tuned in to coverage on one of the cable or broadcast networks, compared with 59 million four years ago, according to Nielsen.
The most obvious beneficiary of the public’s acute interest in the race has been cable news.
In prime time, ABC won the night, but just barely, with 13.2 million viewers. Including all network coverage from 8 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., CNN won, averaging 13.1 million viewers, more than any other U.S. TV network. In a sign of how the balance of power has shifted in TV news, Fox News Channel drew more viewers on Election Night (9 million) than CBS (7.8 million).
Cable news beating the networks on big news events isn’t such an oddity anymore. CNN did it during President-elect Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, and Fox News Channel did it during the Republican conventions of 2008 and 2004.
The top three cable news networks, FNC, CNN and MSNBC, collectively drew 27.7 million viewers, compared with 31.9 million who watched Charles Gibson, Brian Williams and Katie Couric on network TV. But here’s the troubling stat for network news: Audiences for ABC, CBS and NBC dropped 16% from the 38 million who tuned into network coverage just four years ago.
But the networks weren’t irrelevant in the race. Ms. Couric’s interviews with Gov. Sarah Palin were the defining moment in the Alaska governor’s brief sojourn on the national stage.
Normally an also-ran in cable news, MSNBC became a player during the campaign, in part because it launched another partisan show to follow Keith Olbermann, “The Rachel Maddow Show,” which immediately made the No. 3 cable news network competitive with CNN’s “Larry King” and Fox News’ “Hannity & Colmes” at 9 p.m. The question is if MSNBC can sustain its gains or if, as after the 2004 national election, they will evaporate.
“The fact that cable news has come of age and that MSNBC is in the center of the discussion bodes well for the months ahead,” said MSNBC President Phil Griffin.
Political Parody
“Saturday Night Live” became relevant again. Thanks to Tina Fey’s performances as Gov. Palin, as well as appearances by Gov. Palin and her running mate, Sen. John McCain, the show turned in some of its best ratings since the mid-1990s.
Clips from those episodes helped make NBC.com the most-watched network TV Web site in October. The site’s traffic grew fourfold from August to September, according to Nielsen. And Ms. Fey’s accelerated stardom gave her show, “30 Rock,” its best ratings ever for its third-season premiere, which could be a lasting bonus.
Comedy Central also has benefited from its “Indecision 2008” election coverage this year, taking in an incremental $40 million in ad revenue for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” from the likes of Apple, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Columbia Sportswear, E*Trade, Diageo, Subway and Volkswagen.
The two shows have seen a 45% boost in ratings from 2004, including a 60% increase in 18- to 49-year-old viewers. “The Daily Show” also scored its two highest-rated telecasts, with President-elect Obama’s appearance on Oct. 29 (a record 3.6 million total viewers) and the “Indecision 2008” Election Night special (3.1 million).
Nate Ives contributed to this story.


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