After a nearly two-year campaign fraught with race, gender and generational conflict, those in the media reporting and commenting on the road to the White House were rewarded with record viewers and web traffic, including cable news networks, newspaper sites and political blogs, YouTube, and shows like NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."
As election peaks, economy sinks
But all that ends tonight, when media outlets call the election for Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain, and the music officially stops, in the teeth of a building economic crisis.
"The question is how compelling does this story continue to be?" said Andrew Heyward, former CBS News president and senior adviser to the Monitor Group. One thing is certain: The audiences won't disappear on Wednesday. There will be sustained interest in politics as the implications of the election are dissected and the president-elect builds an administration, Mr. Heyward said.
"An Obama presidency will be better for the news networks because there will be more interest in the next 100 days," said media consultant and former Clinton White House aide Craig Minassian.
For the news networks, the audience may not go away, but there's a sense that this is the last big bite to take of the apple. As CNN said in its ad in The New York Times on Election Day, "Some people live for history. We live for the moment just before."
Now media outlets are scrambling to figure out what comes after -- particularly those who rose to fame thanks to being in the right place at the right time.
Maddow leaps into spotlight
Among cable news networks, MSNBC made the biggest move during the election, launching "The Rachel Maddow Show," which immediately made the No. 3 cable news network competitive with CNN's "Larry King" and Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" at 9 p.m. Ms. Maddow's show beat its competition in the 25- to 54-year-old demo last week.
As the campaign ends, all three cable news networks find themselves in a closer competitive position than they've been in in years. Fox News unseated CNN as the No. 1 cable news network in 2001 and hasn't looked back since. But CNN has closed Fox's lead to the smallest margin on an annual basis since 2002, thanks to its coverage of the Democratic primaries.
CNN has averaged about a million viewers in prime time since October 2007, compared with Fox News' 1.7 million. Longtime third-place network MSNBC is finally a serious contender with an average 695,000 viewers. MSNBC's audience is significantly younger, with nearly 50% in the advertiser-relevant 25-54 demo compared with 23% for Fox and 33% for CNN.
The question is whether MSNBC can sustain its gains or if, like after the last national election in 2004, they evaporate.
"Beginning Nov. 5 the race is on, and all three [cable news outlets] have their own attributes, but nobody is in a dominant position right now," said MSNBC President Phil Griffin. "It's for the taking, and that's what we want to do."
The hope is that at least some of young voters being drawn into the election have picked up a news habit along the way.
A bigger pie
"You have many people drawn into the process for the first time," Mr. Heyward said. "This could translate into larger audiences for news programs and news product, like blogs and online news sites."
Cable news' gains have come at least partly at the expense of broadcast TV, with prime-time ratings down double digits since the beginning of the fall season. Just about every sophomore show is floundering, and once-promising shows such as NBC's "Heroes" have lost significant audience.
But don't expect these audiences to come back after the networks call the election. "There may be some who give those shows a second look, but the problem of the broadcast networks are more related to their programs," said John Rash, senior VP-media analysis at Campbell Mithun. "Some of the viewers leaving cable news aren't network viewers anyway, particularly younger voters."
The broadcast evening newscasts saw slight upticks the week prior to the election, but nothing like the increases on cable. Still, broadcast TV networks have seen some benefits from the campaign. "Saturday Night Live" is enjoying its best ratings since the mid-1990s, and it appears Tina Fey's performances on the late-night show as Gov. Sarah Palin helped the premiere of prime-time's "30 Rock" to its best ratings ever.
That and CBS News anchor Katie Couric delivered the most influential set of interviews of the campaign with her conversations with the previously little-known governor of Alaska.
The irony of all this activity is that even with the world turning to newspapers for election news, papers have continued to make deep newsroom layoffs and post new declines in print ad revenue. Just last week, the Los Angeles Times, for one, began a new round of cutbacks, eliminating 75 more jobs. Then Gannett, the country's biggest newspaper publisher, committed to laying off thousands. With the end of the long, fascinating election season, beleaguered newspapers are poised to see their already impressive struggles only intensify.
The Washington Post's website has a comprehensive package of coverage for Election Day, as you might expect, but it does not want to give up the ball on Nov. 5. So on Wednesday the site will replace its campaign blog "The Trail" with "44: Transition to Power," following the president-elect through the months to come. The next day it adds "The Fed Page: Inside the Government Workforce," a wonky dive into the federal government's work force, its departments and its contracting practices just as the president-elect gears up to remake everything.
In an attempt to goose its post-election coverage, The New York Times is giving away on Nov. 5 virtual newspapers as gifts on Facebook. The newspapers will proclaim the headline "Obama Wins" or "McCain Wins," depending on which outcome is known by midnight EST. If there isn't a winner by that time, it'll go a more generic route, asking Facebook users to become a fan of its Facebook page and stay updated on election news via The New York Times. (It'll distribute the virtual gifts once the outcome is known.)
The New York Times is also running video "engagement ads" on Facebook -- those are essentially video ads that users can comment on.
The top political sites and blogs have reason to worry if life after Nov. 5 is anything like 2004, when traffic at progressive blog DailyKos plunged 47%, according to ComScore.
The Drudge Report had lost almost a quarter of its November 2004 traffic by that December. And Real Clear Politics, the edited aggregator that's a big winner in this year's election, saw its November 2004 traffic plummet 86% the next month.
Drudge is collecting his share of this year's powerful election surge, drawing 2.1 million visitors in September, up 70% from September 2007, according to ComScore. Several media watchers have suggested, though, that Drudge is already feeling the ill effects of its conservative bent during a left-leaning year.
But even if a liberal site like HuffingtonPost.com takes a 50% hit when founder Arianna Huffington wakes up tomorrow, it's still an incredible success, having grown from less than a million unique visitors to more than 4.5 million in September, according to ComScore.
Both Huffington Post and Real Clear Politics are bracing for post-election days by attempting to expand into new verticals. Huffington Post launched "green" and comedy channels over the past year, while Real Clear Politics has launched Real Clear Markets, Real Clear Sports and an international site called Real Clear World. "That's another way we're looking past the election," President John McIntyre recently told Ad Age.
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Contributing: Andrew Hampp, Abbey Klaassen and Nat Ives