Big inside the Beltway

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The presidential campaign so far has produced three winners: Al Gore, George W. Bush and cable TV news networks.

The windfall is expected to continue this fall, as cable TV news networks rise to meet a loyal core of viewers who feel abandoned by broadcast networks.

"If [the networks] were doing the kind of coverage that they did in the 1960s and early 1970s, our work would be much more challenging. They've almost abdicated to cable," says CNN senior correspondent Judy Woodruff.

ADDICTED TO POLITICS

The 24-hour cable TV news networks are exploiting the opportunity to cater to sought-after upscale audience addicted to politics. CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and Fox News Network have beefed up their talent and programming, and this year are expected to tally record ratings and revenues for their election coverage.

"You can target audiences on cable better than on the broadcast networks," says Bob Frank, president of SFM Media/ MPG, New York, who has been buying media surrounding elections since 1972. This year, he expects Democratic and Republican Party spending on cable advertising to be in the $15 million-$20 million range.

Surprise victories early in the primaries resulted in record-breaking revenues for seasonal election coverage, says Greg D'Alba, exec VP-sales and marketing for CNN.

"A year ago, people were thinking, `It's Gore-Bush, how dull can you get,' " says Ms. Woodruff. "It has turned out to be a lot more interesting and exciting than people had expected."

Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain both withdrew from the race two days after the Super Tuesday primaries on March 7. Until then, "It made for some very interesting television," says Steve Capus, executive producer of MSNBC's "The News With Brian Williams," one program benefiting from the political interest.

The primaries also helped boost awareness of Fox News' coverage. "Campaign coverage has helped raise our profile," says Paul Rittenberg, exec VP-advertising sales for Fox News, New York.

"It's a very upscale, involved audience," says Mr. Rittenberg, noting that advertisers who heavied up during election coverage included Nissan North America and Charles Schwab & Co.

Mr. Rittenberg expects Fox News' national ad revenues to climb to more than $100 million this year from last year's $65 million. "About 20% of that revenue will come from political coverage sponsorship," he says. "We're close to sold out."

During prime time on Super Tuesday (March 7), cable viewership increased and broadcast network viewership declined, with the exception of ABC. ABC was up 67% that night, largely driven by the success of the hit show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

But NBC was down 29%, CBS down 14% and Fox down 11% compared with the March 1999 average, according to Nielsen Galaxy Explorer numbers.

On the cable side, CNN saw its numbers jump by 77%, delivering 1.7 million homes at its peak during prime time. "We outdelivered MSNBC, Fox News and CNBC combined," Mr. D'Alba says.

The Fox and NBC cable channels do not have the same audience penetration potential as CNN, which is part of the line-up on virtually every U.S. cable system.

TARGET AGE GROUPS

While not discussing specifics, MSNBC crowed about the demographics of its viewers. A spokesman says 51% of the MSNBC audience this year was in the key target age group, adults age 25-54, compared with 35% at CNN and 33% at Fox News, whose audiences skewed older. "This is not your father's newscast," says Mr. Capus.

"We consider this our Super Bowl," Mr. D'Alba says of the entire election year. "We generate a lot of new revenue with our election coverage."

He says advertisers are getting more than they were promised. "Our delivery to date to what we guaranteed for election coverage is actually overperforming by 17%."

Ms. Woodruff points out neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Gore will be shy. "We've got one of the most colorful campaigns in my memory coming up between now and November," she says.

That is likely to translate into solid numbers of votes cast in November -- and of viewers and revenues for the cable news competitors.

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