Cable TV 2008

Viewers Vote for Cable News

Audiences Are up as Much as 70%, but Will They Stick Around Beyond November?

By Published on .

The lords and ladies of the Democratic political establishment may not have enjoyed the nights of Feb. 5 and March 4. Super Tuesday and what we might call "Super Tuesday 2: Vote Harder" passed without the party settling on a presidential nominee, fueling fears of a protracted and costly slog to the Pennsylvania primary on April 22 ("Super Tuesday With a Vengeance").

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Never Seen a Race Like This
Cable News Networks are Early Winners in This Election Year

The Big Three cable news networks, however, didn't share this consternation. As CNN has proclaimed: "You've never seen a race like this one." The 2008 election has proved a boon, with prime-time viewership not only surging over the levels of years past but also diversifying demographically. Viewership at Fox News Channel is up 14% over the same period a year ago, according to Nielsen. Bolstered by a gaggle of well-watched February debates, CNN is up 70%. MSNBC is up 61%. Additionally, each has seen a spike among 18- to 34-year-old viewers -- in CNN's case, a jolting 152% prime-time jump.

New enticements for advertisers
The news networks have entered election season with new enticements for advertisers, supplementing the TV platform with online and mobile. MSNBC says February was the biggest month ever for Sponsors of CNN's TV and digital 2008 election coverage include Hyundai Motor America, Cisco Systems, ExxonMobil and AARP.

Also in the fray is Mark Cuban's high-definition HDNet, distributed via cable and satellite companies, with news icon Dan Rather following the races.

"We knew this was going to be a big one. We just thought it would go into hibernation on the morning of Feb. 6. Hey, the fight continues," says John Kelly, senior VP-ad sales for NBC News and MSNBC.

So, too, does the fight to give marketers the face time they crave, especially with the Big Three networks skewing younger than they usually do. In this respect, however, the news networks have found the going far tougher, because they remain first and foremost news-gathering operations. Translation: However much advertisers might want to be integrated into the content, the networks can rarely, if ever, accommodate them.

MSNBC, for instance, is using the election battle to fuel its annual "Hardball College Tour." Chris Matthews has again taken to the road, appearing at West Chester University with Barack Obama and at Villanova University with John McCain. While marketers including General Electric Co., Liberty Mutual and Monster have partnered with these events, they get no on-camera exposure. The marketers get an opportunity to interact with an involved, younger audience, but the reach is clearly limited.

Campaign-year controversies
Then there's the challenge posed by campaign-year controversy -- specifically, marketers' profound desire to distance themselves from it. Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming at Katz Television Group, questions whether marketers want to see their pitches pressed up against, say, touchy banter involving race or class.

"Some advertisers love that, but a lot stay away," he says. "So what CNN and everybody else has to do is present ideas that are perceived to be relatively neutral." Mr. Carroll suggests a push that encourages voting as one such idea.

Media planners and buyers commend the Big Three, as well as smaller players like HDNet, for their willingness to work with them during the complexities of the campaign season, especially across platforms.

Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at Deutsch, New York, points to online video as this campaign's most welcome media innovation and one that will continue to lure eyeballs in the months ahead.

"It's a great consumer experience," Mr. Gardiner says. "It's one thing to check out a story online, but it's another when you can search and watch videos of things that Obama or Hillary have said."

Mobile applications
"Mobile applications and the [wireless-application-protocol] sites on people's PDAs -- we're selling those out," Mr. Kelly says.

Marketers are eager to hawk their wares in such an environment, even though they haven't progressed much beyond "pounding people with banners and 15-second pre-roll ads," Mr. Gardiner says.

"Their mouths are watering," says Eric Blankfein, senior VP-director of channel insights at Horizon Media. At the same time, he bemoans all the clutter. "We know that if we're going to put an advertiser in, they're going to be one of many." As a result, Horizon is asking for (and occasionally receives) pod exclusivity and related considerations.

Mr. Kelly and Greg D'Alba, exec VP-chief operating officer of ad sales for CNN, have plans to parlay the wave of interest into long-term viewership gains and marketing partnerships. (Fox News had no comment.) Mr. D'Alba says CNN is focusing its efforts on becoming what he calls a "backpack brand," one whose tentacles reach viewers anywhere they go. "It's like with sports. [Viewers] don't leave the living room and miss the game. They take the game with them," he says.

The pivotal question is whether the Big Three news networks will be able to sustain viewer interest after the next president is elected in November. The networks themselves, not surprisingly, are optimistic.

"The trouble with the economy is not going away. We're still in Iraq," Mr. D'Alba says, adding with a laugh: "We'll probably know who the president is on Nov. 5, but the issues remain."

The media community isn't quite as certain. "After 9/11, the strength of the news networks was at its highest in a long, long time. Even then, we saw a leveling out of their audience," Mr. Blankfein says. "They're going to be hard-pressed to sustain what they have now."

Mr. Gardiner says: "It's crucial for [the networks], because it's one of the few times when they have a lot of trial from consumers who don't ordinarily watch."

Dan Rather: 'Trying to Become Digital Dan in High-Def'

More than three years after his departure, it still feels odd to turn on the "CBS Evening News" and see somebody other than Dan Rather staring back at you. And that sense of unreality has only been amplified during the campaign season. Mr. Rather, now covering the 2008 presidential race for Mark Cuban's HDNet, took time to chat with Larry Dobrow.
Dan Rather
Dan Rather

Ad Age: Tell me about the transition to HDNet.

Mr. Rather: I'm at an age and stage where I don't need to kiss up to anybody anymore. [Mr. Cuban] deserves praise for saying, "Dan, I want to stay out of it. You have editorial control. Be as fearless as you can and do excellent work." ... He's been better than his word and better than the contract in just about every area.

Ad Age: How has HDNet's coverage of the campaigns differed from that of the cable news and broadcast networks?

Mr. Rather: We've tried to have meaningful conversations with knowledgeable people about the issues in the presidential campaign year and/or things we think should be issues. ... We have been up on some of the major primary and caucus nights, and again, we didn't try to have people duplicate what was elsewhere on cable TV or over the airwaves. We didn't have a lot of gadgets and graphics.

What we had were people who know things and say, "We're going to take you inside." We've tried from time to time to ask, "Who is giving money to whom, and why?" I think a lot of the coverage outside of our own has been pretty good, but nobody follows the dollar as much as I think they ought to.

I do not exclude myself from this criticism [from] when I was working with a network: There is too much horse race, far too much reliance on polls. The best of polls are a snapshot of one moment in time, and that moment can change very quickly.

You can get four people in the room to shout at one another, because it's convenient and cheaper to do it that way. It makes for quote-unquote "good television," but it doesn't always make for good campaign coverage in the sense of helping the public.

Ad Age: How do you see the election coverage evolving over the next decade and beyond?

Mr. Rather: Cable and/or satellite will just about take it over from the Big Three [broadcast] networks. I think there will be a diminution of print coverage in 2012 compared with 2008, if for no other reason than that it's very expensive to cover campaigns. Increasingly, newspapers are going to be having a hard time paying the freight.

Ad Age: And your own future?

Mr. Rather: We're learning as we go on "Dan Rather Reports." For me, this was going into the wilderness, this business of trying to become "digital Dan in high-def" [laughs]. It's a challenge and a responsibility, but it's also a heck of a lot of fun, and I take a tremendous amount of satisfaction from it.

It's been the same for me since I've been in my teens. I aspire to do great journalism. I've never met my own goals, but I'm always trying to do that. Every morning, that's among the first things I'm thinking about: How can I do not just good but great journalism as a public service? If that strikes somebody as a little sophomoric for my age, well, that's how I feel.
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