January loaded with high-rated news events

The marathon presidential campaign season may be taking a toll on the candidates, but TV news has been having a great run with it.

Since the primaries inched closer to the beginning of the new year, January was loaded with enough noteworthy political events to justify a glut of high-rated coverage.

“The timing was exquisite,” says ABC News senior VP Jeffrey Schneider.

In January, CNN and MSNBC were up 42% and 37% respectively vs. 2007, while Fox News Channel rose to become the No. 4 net in all of cable. Ratings are up not just from year-to-year, but far above the previous election cycle, as well.

Most of the contests have been on cable, but ABC’s coverage of Republican and Democratic debates from New Hampshire on Jan. 5 averaged a hearty 8.6 million viewers, giving the net one of its strongest Saturdays of the season. And every debate on cable in the past two months averaged at least 2.4 million viewers.

The question, though, is how much longer can this go on? Will auds reach a saturation point?

Newsers said no last week, and they’re hoping and praying that “no” will still be the right answer after Super Tuesday.

The race has been filled with dynamic candidates and timely issues, with enough plot twists to keep audiences glued to their sets — a particularly fortuitous set of circumstances.

“It’s a big race with big personalities — there’s a lot at stake,” says George Stephanopoulos, ABC chief Washington correspondent and former adviser to the Clinton administration. “It’s the first wide-open election since 1952, at least, and there have been intense fights within the parties. So people get that it’s an important election; it is theater, but it’s theater rooted in issues of real consequence.”

This time last year, the three cable news nets were filling their programming hours with missing teens, miscreant celebs and Anna Nicole Smith. This year, with topsy-turvy primary races in both parties, they’ve found gold in parsing every facet of the campaigns and the latest polling numbers.

Fox News Channel’s VP of newsgathering John Stack says you need look no further than last week’s Florida primary for why the election makes for good TV.

Stack spoke to Variety on Jan. 30, when his point was being illustrated by the day’s breaking news.

“Today you had the results from Florida, and then the speculation that (Rudy) Giuliani would drop out, and then the surprise that (John) Edwards was dropping out, and that suits the 24-hour format really well,” he says.

Political fever seems to be more pervasive than ever. MSNBC has drawn on NBC heavyweights Tim Russert and Matt Lauer to pump up its debates. CNN is opening the floodgates for a 40-hour marathon of Super Tuesday coverage. Fox’s broadcast net was even planning to showcase FNC’s Shepard Smith with a three-hour programming block in which Smith and fellow cablers Bill Hemmer and Megyn Kelly reported on politics and football before the Super Bowl on Feb. 3.

And, after years of ceding the bulk of election coverage to the cable newsies, the broadcast nets are looking to reclaim some of their old turf. ABC is set to air a five-hour marathon of primary coverage on Feb. 5 — including all three hours of primetime, where its opposition includes “American Idol.” CBS is setting aside two hours of primetime, while NBC was prepping for one hour.

For strike-impacted broadcast webs, opting for a hot Election Night is a pretty good bet when the options are repeats or reality shows. Still, ABC’s Schneider insists this year’s election coverage is about more than filling primetime hours.

“I think that writers strike or no writers strike, the historic nature of this election really prompts and demands this kind of coverage,” he says.

After Super Tuesday’s 22 primaries and caucuses play out, though, many newsies admit they’re stumped as to whether auds will stay tuned.

“Americans have very short attention spans,” says CNN prexy Jonathan Klein, “and they may move on from this election after the nominees are selected.”

In past elections, there’s always been a lull once the parties settle on their candidates, and this season could turn out to be just the same.

But newsies are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping that Super Tuesday doesn’t anoint a clear winner for each party. Then the drama could continue for weeks, maybe months, as the remaining primaries are held one by one.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says TV analyst Andrew Tyndall, “because on the one hand, they (the networks) couldn’t have a huge night on Tuesday unless half the country was voting — but on the other hand the fact that half the country is voting makes it more likely that the races will be settled. They want to have a huge Super Bowl-type night, but they also want it to go on and on.”

In a perfect world, things would play out into the conventions, where both Democrats and Republicans have promised not to seat delegates from states that moved their primaries forward against the party’s instructions. Such a showdown could provide a dramatic switch from recent conventions, which were so heavily orchestrated and managed that the nets essentially gave up covering them.

So in two weeks’ time, will election ratings plummet back to their old levels?

“I think that three weeks ago, we probably would have all said something else,” Stack says. “But then with the build-up to Iowa and then New Hampshire, we were all surprised.

“There’ll be a certain set of new interests, and we’ll be surprised again, and then we’ll really be able to get down to brass tacks in the general election.”

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