Cable News Networks Have Chance to Cash in

Competition in Wide-Open Election Year Is Is Not Only Between Candidates

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If you haven't been hiding out in the mountainous region between Pakistan and Afghanistan -- or perhaps even if you have -- you've likely noticed that the 2008 presidential race has already kicked into high gear. Needless to say, this hasn't escaped the notice of cable news channels, which have already turned up the volume on the politics-centric programming on TV and on their websites.

Cable news executives say that they expected the rush of hype and excitement back in early 2005. Following President Bush's 2004 re-election and Vice President Cheney's assertion that he had no designs on the White House, it was noted that in 2008, for the first time since 1952, no incumbent president or vice president would be among the candidates. Throw in a few polarizing personalities -- Rudy Giuliani and Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain, later to be joined by Sen. Barack Obama -- and the news channels had a pretty good inkling two years ago that the next presidential election would be unlike any in several generations.

Quicker than anticipated
Still, few predicted the campaign's early pace. "I don't think anybody thought we'd be so far along so quickly," says Sam Feist, political director and senior executive producer of political programming, CNN/US.

That said, in the face of intense competition from each other and ever-feisty political bloggers, cable news networks seem to be rejiggering material they already have -- hours of content that doesn't make it to air -- for their websites, rather than creating new TV programming. MSNBC, for example, today launches its behind-the-scenes online "Campaign Playbook"; Mr. Feist half-seriously promises that visitors "will see what's on [CNN anchor] Wolf Blitzer's BlackBerry."

"It can't just be 'Hillary's in New Hampshire today.' It has to be what's going on inside the campaigns," says Tammy Haddad, VP-Washington of MSNBC and executive producer, "Hardball With Chris Matthews." "We know this stuff, so we have to find ways to get it to the public."

MSNBC will air the first Democratic debate on April 26. CNN and Fox News Channel have already upped the politics on their flagship programming, with CNN set to host six debates.

"The networks have to be thrilled," says Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming, Katz Television Group, New York, about the potential for a relatively wide-open race.
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