Wide-open primaries boosts cable news

News networks see unusual increases in ratings

Please don’t call it “Presidential Idol.”

Between the happy accident of a front-loaded electoral year, dozens of stalled WGA-scripted series, and general uncertainty about who’s going to be on the ballot come November, the three major cable newsies (Fox News, CNN and MSNBC) are seeing unusual increases in ratings this winter, even for an election year.

Primetime averages for the news nets are up so high that Fox News Channel surged to a third-place finish among all cable nets for the week ending Jan. 13, with 2.03 million viewers — behind only entertainment nets USA and TBS.

Partly, the primaries are just good theater.

“You’ve definitely got much more crossover potential for these candidates than in the last cycle,” suggests TV analyst Andrew Tyndall. “Then there’s the fact that every week, there’s a new frontrunner on the Republican side. This has the structure of a gameshow — there’s an elimination going on, and there’s a sparring between personalities.”

As the primary season got under way, it got even more competitive. On Jan. 6, two days before the New Hampshire primary, as Fox News Channel ran a Republican debate, CNN showed a rerun of ABC’s back-to-back Republican and Democratic forums from a day earlier.

But CNN actually increased its primetime average with the reruns, and Fox News drew about 1 million more than its average for its debates, hitting 2.5 million viewers. A few days later, Fox invited all the major Republican candidates to its Myrtle Beach, S.C. debate, and the ratings jumped an additional million-plus viewers to 3.6 million.

In fact, the debates appear to be the bread and butter of the ratings boost: With so much interest in the vastly different candidates, viewers apparently are ever-more interested in watching the matchups even if the broadcast and cable networks have hosted more than a dozen debates since last spring.

On Jan. 15, MSNBC hosted a Democratic debate from Nevada moderated by Tim Russert and Brian Williams. And in a rarity, it outdrew both of its cable news rivals.

The competition was strong, too — CNN and Fox were covering the Michigan primary, which is not exactly a page two story. The debate itself averaged 2.44 million viewers on MSNBC, with all of primetime averaging just under 2 million viewers, putting the net ahead of Fox’s 1.82 million and CNN’s 1.07 million.

This means that every debate on cable since the beginning of November has averaged at least 2 million viewers.

Ahead this week is a Jan. 21 Democratic debate on CNN and a Jan. 24 Republican debate on MSNBC. CNN will then air what could be a pair of crucial debates Jan. 30 (GOP) and Jan. 31 (Dems) in the days leading up to Super Tuesday (Feb. 5), when 24 states hold primaries.

“You hear people talking about ‘debate fatigue,’ ” says Phil Griffin, NBC News senior VP and exec in charge of MSNBC. “There is no debate fatigue. You’ve got one of the best elections in my lifetime right now.”

If “best” means “least certain,” CNN/U.S. prexy Jonathan Klein agrees: “It’s totally up for grabs.” Klein notes that it’s been decades since there was real fervor around so many candidates at once, and that fuels the ratings fires. “There’s a huge appetite out there for information about the candidates; the voters want to hear directly from the candidates themselves.”

Klein also opines that it’s the participatory aspect of the coverage that makes it so enthralling to so many. “In most past elections, there was some incumbent president or vice president running; this time, people feel in their heart that their vote might matter.”

Tyndall puts it a different way: “It’s like ‘The Apprentice.’ Except that you’re the ones that get to say ‘You’re Fired.’ “