One-Way Media Lost the Election as Cable, Interactive Dominated

From 'SNL' to Facebook, a Look at Some of the Winners and Losers and What It Means

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NEW YORK ( -- Barack Obama's historic campaign for the presidency rode the wave of a sea change in the way that consumers access, personalize and share news and information. That transformation was happening with or without the election, but the campaign activated millions of young people already accustomed to consuming media in different ways.

Photo Credit: (From top) Dana Edelson, MSNBC, CBS

Different views: Election coverage on "SNL," MSNBC and CBS.

The winners were the ones that fed the public's desire for news where and when they wanted it: 24-hour cable TV news; participatory blogs that aggregate news of a political bent; websites that allow users to access media on their own terms (YouTube) and those that allow users to communicate and organize with each other (Facebook). Losers were the one-way media of the past: While the broadcast networks weren't without their moments, they were more marginal than four years ago. Network prime time, bereft of new hits and attempting to appeal to a distracted population, was down by double digits this fall.

Static news sites such as The Drudge Report were surpassed by the more participatory Huffington Post and the original reporting of Politico.

The question isn't so much whether this is a permanent shuffling of the pecking order -- it is -- but whether the election-fueled gains will last for, say, The Huffington Post or MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.

"Users are sophisticated about finding the targeted coverage they want," said Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News and a consultant for the Monitor Group. "They are not a passive herd that can be shoved into a paddock because you want them to be there."

TV news

The most obvious beneficiary of the public's acute interest in the race has been cable news. On election night, nearly 79 million people tuned in to TV coverage, compared with 59 million four years ago, according to Nielsen. In prime time, ABC won the night, but just barely, with 13.2 million viewers. Including all network coverage until 12:30 a.m., CNN won, averaging 13.1 million viewers, more than any other U.S. TV network.

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In a sign of how the balance of power has shifted in TV news, Fox News Channel drew more viewers on election night (9 million) than CBS (7.8 million).

Cable news beating the networks on big events isn't such an oddity anymore. CNN did it during Mr. Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, and Fox News Channel did it during the Republican conventions of 2008 and 2004.

The top three cable news networks -- Fox News, CNN and MSNBC -- collectively drew 27.7 million viewers, compared with 31.9 million who watched Charles Gibson, Brian Williams and Katie Couric on network TV. But here's the troubling stat for network news: Audiences for ABC, CBS and NBC dropped 16% from the 38 million who tuned in to network coverage just four years ago.

At the same time, the networks weren't irrelevant. Ms. Couric's interviews with Gov. Sarah Palin were the defining moments of her brief sojourn on the national stage.

Normally an also-ran in cable news, MSNBC became a player, in part because it launched another partisan show to follow Keith Olbermann's, "The Rachel Maddow Show," which immediately made the No. 3 cable news network competitive with CNN's "Larry King Live" and Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" at 9 p.m. The question is whether MSNBC can sustain its gains or if, as after the previous presidential election, in 2004, they will evaporate.

"The fact that cable news has come of age and that MSNBC is in the center of the discussion bodes well for the months ahead," said MSNBC President Phil Griffin.

Online news

Predictably, news sites had a huge Election Day. CNN, MSNBC and Yahoo News were up 50%, 103% and 50%, respectively, from the previous Tuesday, according to Nielsen. But consider the growth of political blogs: The Huffington Post, Politico and Real Clear Politics grew 474%, 344% and 489%, respectively, in September from the previous year.
media chart

YouTube was in some ways as important to the campaigns as broadcast TV. Online videos of Messrs. Obama and McCain drew 1.45 billion views in the past year, according to web-analytics firm Divinity Metrics, many of those on YouTube. In September, YouTube became the biggest search engine after Google, and had 59% more visitors than in the previous year, according to ComScore.

Political parody

"Saturday Night Live" became relevant again. And thanks to Tina Fey's impressions of Ms. Palin, as well as appearances by Ms. Palin and Mr. McCain, the show turned in some of its best ratings since the mid-'90s.

Clips from those episodes helped make the most-watched network TV website in October. The site grew 312% from September to August, according to Nielsen. Ms. Fey's accelerated stardom gave her show, "30 Rock," its best ratings ever in its third-season premiere, which could be a lasting bonus for a network sorely in need of a hit.

Comedy Central has also benefited from its election coverage, taking in an incremental $40 million in ad revenue for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" from the likes of Apple, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Columbia Sportswear, Diageo, E-Trade, Subway and Volkswagen. The two shows have seen a 45% boost in ratings vs. 2004, including a 60% increase in 18- to 49-year-old viewers. Mr. Obama's appearance on "The Daily Show" on Oct. 29 scored the show a record 3.6 million viewers.

But it could be argued that "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," as well as "Saturday Night Live," had an even bigger impact online, helping Hulu become the sixth-largest U.S. video site in October, according to Nielsen Video Census.


Newspapers saw their best day in a long time the day after the election. The New York Times printed an extra 50,000 copies after newsstands across the city sold out.

"People like to say that print is a withering industry, that newspapers are shrinking ice floes in a warming sea of pixels" said the Times' editorial-board blog. "But for crying out loud, when something big happens, don't you miss the paper?"

The Washington Post tripled its normal newsstand sales, if you include the 350,000 commemorative editions that followed a sellout of the regular edition despite 30% more copies on the racks. 

Unfortunately for the newspaper industry, there aren't many days like Nov. 4, 2008. The industry's average paid weekday circulation declined 4.6% in the first half of the year from the first half of 2007, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Sunday paid circulation fell 4.9%. 

Newspaper websites had a boom year by comparison. The New York Times site had 12.7 million unique visitors in September, a 37% increase from the year before. The Wall Street Journal online was up 103%, and The Washington Post was up 40%, a trend consistent among big dailies across the country.

But online revenue is not replacing losses in print. The U.S. newspaper industry cut 23,000 jobs, or 6.8% of employees, in the first nine months of 2008, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

News aggregators

It's a disturbing trend for those who make a living parsing, analyzing and debating the nation's best journalism. Social news site Digg, for example, is up 44% to 26 million monthly users this year, according to Compete, but where would Digg, Drudge or any news aggregator be without source material?

media chart
"Our business depends on The New York Times," said Huffington Post CEO Betsy Morgan at an Ad:Tech forum. "A huge part of what we do is pointing to quality journalism; we start working after the story is written."

The top political sites and blogs have reason to worry if life after Nov. 5 is anything like 2004. DailyKos shed 47%of its traffic, and Real Clear Politics lost 86% by December of that year, according to ComScore.

But even if The Huffington Post takes a 50% hit after the election, it's still an incredible success, having grown to more than 4.5 million unique visitors in September from fewer than 1 million.

Social networking

The Obama campaign's embrace of social networking will be imitated in campaigns to come, and there's little doubt the political season has helped social networks. Facebook hit 120 million active users in October, up from 100 million in August, according to the company.

"The technology keeps evolving, and there is a new engaged citizenry that now feels empowered," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum. "They will continue to organize themselves whether being led by politicians or not."

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Contributing: Nat Ives
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