Networks search for identity after election

What do we do now?

The last line of the 1972 Robert Redford political dramedy “The Candidate” seems a fitting description of the crossroads that the TV news biz faces after last week’s election that saw Barack Obama soundly defeat John McCain to become the nation’s first African-American president.

The two-year historic horse race was very, very good for the news business, particularly the all-news cablers. Viewership spiked, stars were made and news operations were given frequent opportunities to shine with substantive material. The test for TV newsies is to hang on tothose ratings.

The what-next question is especially interesting for the two outlets that have staked out partisan turf. How will the top-rated Fox News Channel fare in an Obama world? Who will MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann rail against if there’s a liberal in the White House?

The redrawn electoral map would indicate that Fox News’ hardcore red-state demo is shrinking into highly concentrated areas of the Midwest and deep South. It says a lot that Obama is the first Democratic presidential candidate to draw more than 50% of the popular vote since Lyndon B. Johnson.

Some observers say that Fox News could be invigorated by the climate change in Washington from the Bush-Cheney years to an Obama administration and solidly Democratic Congress. The Sean Hannitys and Bill O’Reillys are likely to have no shortage of issues and complaints with the Democratic policy agenda.

But with the country clearly taking a turn to the left, Fox News could run the risk of alienating some swing viewers if it pushes the “we’re the angry minority” theme too hard. (Fox News declined comment for this report.)

Conversely, MSNBC would seem to be well-positioned for the Obama era.

During the past year or so, the Peacock-owned cabler finally stopped being a perennial also-ran to CNN and Fox News as interest in the election heated up. “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” garnered ratings-grabbing attention for his scathing critiques of President Bush and the GOP and opportunistic on-air chastising of Fox News’ O’Reilly.

Rachel Maddow, a one-time “Countdown” commentator and fill-in host, has emerged as a rising star, toplining her own show following “Countdown.” After just two months, “The Rachel Maddow Show” is giving CNN’s venerable incumbent “Larry King Live” a run for its money in the 8 p.m. hour.

Olbermann discounts any talk of needing to recast himself or “Countdown” now that a more like-minded leader is heading to the White House.

“Perhaps I’ll play more of an auditor role than anything else,” he says of covering the Obama administration. “Like, ‘Why haven’t you done this or that yet?’ “

There’s also “the distinct possibility that (Sarah) Palin could assert herself as the leader of the Republican party, in which case 17-18 minutes of my show every night will write itself,” he quips.

MSNBC prexy Phil Griffin argues that the 2008 elections proved “the news game has moved in a big way to the cable channels. That’s where people go, especially for perspective.”

Perspective maybe, but viewership breakdown for the record-setting Nov. 4 Election Night ratings tell an interesting tale. The huge turnout for Obama did not translate to a slam-dunk for the news cabler that most ardently embraced his candidacy — but rather for centrist CNN.

CNN topped all nets, including the Big Three broadcasters, on Election Night with an average of 13.3 million viewers compared with 8.1 million for Fox News and 6.4 million for MSNBC from 8 p.m.-12:30 a.m. ET. (Fox News easily beat CNN in primetime election night coverage in 2004.)

What MSNBC does have is momentum among the younger viewers that advertisers covet most, which would seem to mirror the higher turnout among younger voters in this election.

In the 11 p.m.-1 a.m. ET time frame when the race was called for Obama, McCain conceded and Obama delivered his acceptance speech, MSNBC beat Fox News in total viewers (6.6 million vs. 5.4 million) and in the adults 25-54 demo (MSNBC’s 3 million to Fox News’ 2.5 million). Yet CNN beat both of its rivals combined in the 11 p.m-1 a.m. span with 13.2 million total viewers and 6.8 million in the 25-54 demo.

CNN’s big problem throughout its history, of course, has been maintaining viewership outside of mega-breaking news events.

CNN/U.S. topper Jon Klein thinks news orgs will hold onto more viewers than usual this year because of the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy. Viewers are likely to be fascinated with the new administration and first family, at least initially.

“Literally overnight, we’re going to flip into power coverage of how the new kids in town will solve problems,” Klein says. But the problems won’t be solved overnight. “The economy is not going to be cured, everyone’s 401(k)’s are not going to be fat and happy (and) there will still be two wars going on” on the day Obama takes office.

Rick Kaplan, exec producer of “CBS Evening News With Katie Couric,” maintains the best is yet to come. Couric was another news biz winner from the election cycle. Her Palin interviews got people talking about Couric’s work, rather than her job status at CBS.

“The election was just the appetizer. This is the meal,” Kaplan says. “How we cover this post-election period — how all of the promises and the campaign talk really goes down — is way more important than even the election.”

Perhaps the toughest story for TV to capture is the overriding theme that the Obama campaign tubthumped so successfully: Change, and a historic transitional moment for the United States. The mood of the electorate has clearly changed — just ask the GOP — along with the nation’s demographic, racial and ethnic mix.

The cultural seachange raises the bar for reporting.

“The historical aspect of the race, these two fascinating and complicated candidates, plus the enormous stakes, that all carried us through,” says Candy Crowley, a veteran political correspondent for CNN. “Now we’re down to just the enormous stakes. It’s not as sexy, but you could argue that it is more important, because the stakes have an impact on people’s day-to-day lives.”

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