Cablers worry about post-election drop-off

The most recent Nielsen ratings showed that politics — and nearly wall-to-wall coverage of it — have been very good for CNN and MSNBC. And as the country heads toward a historic election in an increasingly charged atmosphere, the cablers’ good fortunes will likely continue.

But what happens when the voting ends Nov. 5? Will politically-oriented programming continue to pay off for CNN and MSNBC? Or is the viewer appetite for politics the equivalent of an irrationally exuberant stock market, with a nasty ratings “correction” all but assured once the race is over?

“There will definitely be an enormous amount of interest after the election in the issues raised in the campaign,” says Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S. “We’re still going to have a lousy economy. We’re still going to have 150,000 troops in Iraq. We’re still going to have a health care crisis. Americans are going to want to know what the new administration is going to do about all that.”

“Things are going to change a little for all of us after the election,” admits Phil Griffin, NBC senior VP who oversees MSNBC. “But there will still be a lot of interest either way. If Obama wins, there’ll be worldwide interest. And if McCain wins, there will still be a lot of interest, just different.”

The optimism may be necessary, given that MSNBC has more than tripled its political coverage in 2008 over its amount in 2007, and CNN has quintupled its coverage, according to data from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

So far, the strategy has paid off. In the coveted 25-54 demo, CNN rose 22% in the second quarter, year to year, from 243,000 viewers to 297,000. MSNBC was up 45% for the same category in the same period, from 184,000 to 267,000. And Fox News Channel remains the demo leader even with a 2% decrease — dipping to 343,000 from 350,000.

FNC also remains comfortably on top in total viewers, posting an 8% gain (from 1.476 million to 1.589 million) vs. the second quarter of 2007.

But CNN and MSNBC gained in that category, too — 26% and 45%, up to 961,000 and 690,000, respectively — and for simple reasons, says John Rash, director of media analysis at Campbell Mithun.

“The ascension of CNN and MSNBC has as much to do with political dynamics as much as programming dynamics,” Rash notes. “The Democratic electorate has been electrified by this campaign, and they’re more likely to go to CNN or MSNBC than Fox.”

Both Klein and Griffin expect some dropoff in viewers after the election, but they likely will retain a significant share of the viewers — particularly if Obama wins.

“The month of June has always hurt us the most,” says Griffin, recalling that in previous elections, when primaries ended as they normally do just before summer begins, the numbers go down. “But not this time,” he says. Hence, Griffin isn’t worried about MSNBC becoming “overbranded” as a political news outlet.

The question is exactly how many viewers will the two cablers retain? Kris Magel, senior veep at the media strategy firm Initiative, says CNN and MSNBC could emulate to some extent Fox’s success at holding on to viewers in the post-election world.

“When Fox was first growing and creating an identity, increasing distribution and building the brand, it did a pretty good job of retaining large amounts of viewers with each election,” Magel points out. The reason? Fox was not as well known as it is now, and lots of new viewers tuned in to check it out, liked what they saw and stayed, he says.

Nielsen data show that Fox retained 88% of total viewers after the 2000 election ended. Following the 2004 election, it held onto 66%.

CNN and MSNBC are already known to a large extent, so they’re not likely to retain as many viewers as Fox did. “But they’ll retain some,” Magel says.

Advertisers seem content to go along for the ride — so far — mostly because neither CNN nor MSNBC “is really doing anything out of the ordinary,” Magel continues. “This election has generated so much more energy and enthusiasm than before, so it’s natural they would increase their political programming, and advertisers would want them to.”

Richard Wald, a journalism professor at Columbia U. and a former network TV correspondent, believes viewer interest in politics will remain strong when a new face takes over the Oval Office. “But if the new presidency fails to inspire people, and governance seems less interesting, political coverage will lose interest to editors and the amount of coverage will decrease,” Wald says. “Cable news channels do not long indulge in eat-your-oatmeal coverage.”

“Look at the Iraq war,” he continues. “When interest was high, coverage was large. But the public has made up its mind about the war. Get out. It is a settled question. Interest is low. So is coverage.”

The same fate could befall political programming, should the public decide it has learned everything it cares to learn about the new president. At that time, expect a noticeable uptick in crime and celebrity news.

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