Record ratings have led to major ad-sales growth, both of which the networks should be able to ride all the way to the conventions in August, when the highly rated race between Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton finally comes to an end. But the picture gets cloudy going into this year's upfront sales period, when the networks will be selling inventory for fourth quarter and beyond.
A recent MediaVest study polling 1,174 registered voters during a five-day period found the left end of the viewing audience is consuming cable news in higher numbers during this presidential primary season.
"On the liberal side of the consumer base, there's a growing polarization [between Mr. Obama's supporters and Ms. Clinton's supporters]," said John Spiropoulos, VP-group research director at MediaVest. "So there are more people tuning in over time when you look at the exit polls."
That's certainly true for CNN, which was up 111% in the first quarter among adults 25 to 54, with an average of 555,000 viewers -- a demo where it beats Fox News, according to MediaVest analysis. Fox, still the overall ratings leader among viewers 2 and older, increased its ratings 13% among adults 25 to 54 to 514,000 this year. The increased interest from the left is also benefiting MSNBC, which is up 82% to 376,000, a significant gain for a network long considered a distant third to CNN and Fox News.
But can they keep the growth going? To paraphrase Barack Obama, yes, they might.
Both CNN and MSNBC point to incremental ratings and ad-sales growth over the past two years as a sign of new audiences being brought to the fold, even before the primaries.
All three news networks show a drop off in viewers the day after a big event such as Super Tuesday or one of the state primaries, but a Fox News spokeswoman noted that her network tends to lose less of its audience during those times.
This January was a particularly booming time for CNN, which was the only network of the three to see its ad revenue increase year over year, to $29.8 million from $27.6 million in January 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Fox News dropped to $36.8 million from $41.2 million that same month, while MSNBC dipped slightly to $9.4 million from $9.8 million. Fox News finished 2007 with $577.5 million in ad revenue, while CNN booked $417.7 million and MSNBC had $143.2 million.
Greg D'Alba, exec VP-chief operating officer of ad sales at CNN, pointed to the network's increased use of online and mobile to drive more viewers to tune in for event coverage such as the candidate debates. "The intention of multimedia integration has always been to reach more consumers through technology," he said. "What's happened over the past year is ... more first-time news consumers have really embraced our brand."
Ad sales have grown thanks to the bump in ratings, with CNN forging new relationships with nonendemic retail and fashion marketers such as Target and Louis Vuitton, while its election coverage just added AARP and Exxon Mobil as fully integrated sponsors.
The latter category of advertisers -- those marrying their politically themed ad messages with the election coverage -- comprise the most uncertain post-election spenders, said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media Intelligence's Campaign Media Analysis Group. "There's some built-in advertising dollars going to cable on issue advertising, more this year than next year," he said. "The proof will be in the pudding. If the product sellers that decide to get in on the act move into some cable news buys because that's where they think the most consumer-driven audience is, they'll probably stick around."
Phil Griffin, senior VP-NBC News and executive-in-charge of MSNBC, is just happy to finally have a sizeable audience, period. "MSNBC is no longer a stepchild to either NBC News, nor is it the also-ran in cable news," he said, pointing to the success of "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" as a direct cause of his network's newfound relevance. "We're in the mix. Our viewership may go down a bit, but it will be less than the other guys after the election."