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The race for TV viewers

Cable news' new clout stems from its nonstop nature, while broadcast networks argue they offer more substance.

September 11, 2008|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As the 2008 presidential campaign moves into its final, frenzied push, the race has never been more competitive.

In this case, the rivals are the broadcast television news divisions and their cable news challengers jockeying to win viewers for their political coverage. The cable channels showed clout during the party conventions, but ABC, CBS and NBC are hoping that their evenhanded style and high-profile exclusives will keep people watching this fall.

One sign of the broadcasters' continuing sway: Tonight ABC's "World News" will air the first part of anchor Charles Gibson's interview with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the only one she has granted since becoming the Republican vice presidential nominee. The fact that it went to Gibson -- who is interviewing Palin in Alaska over two days, with the final installment airing on Friday's "20/20" -- speaks to the lasting regard for the Big Three's anchors.

The campaign did not tell ABC why it chose to do the interview with Gibson, but news division President David Westin said he believes it was because of the anchor's experience and approach to campaign coverage.

"We have continually done our very best to be honest and complete and fair to all sides and not to take any positions and not to be used by a campaign for its purposes," he said.

But cable network executives argue that it's only a matter of time before such exclusives land on their channels, which are increasingly becoming purveyors of political developments because of their nonstop nature.

"We can stay in touch with viewers 24/7, and that's an enormous advantage over the broadcasters, which are severely restricted in their footprint," said Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S. "They can only deliver news at certain and increasingly inconvenient times."

Even with less air time, broadcasters argue that they deliver weightier and more substantial coverage. "What we have chosen to do is offer what viewers can't get in all of the blather on cable," said Rick Kaplan, executive producer of "CBS Evening News." "You present a really solid, substantial, meaningful set of reports."

Still, four years after Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather were the dominant television figures covering the presidential race, there's no question that the authority traditionally wielded by network anchors is eroding.

That point was driven home during the recent political conventions. Together, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC -- which usually attract audiences a fraction of the size of their broadcast brethren -- got nearly as many viewers as the combined audience for the convention specials anchored by Gibson, NBC's Brian Williams and CBS' Katie Couric.

NBC drew the biggest average audience across both weeks, but its hourlong reports placed second behind a cable network during each individual convention.

During the Democratic convention, CNN garnered the most viewers overall, largely because its coverage of Sen. Barack Obama's speech attracted the biggest audience in all of television that day. The following week, Fox News was the most-watched network during the Republic convention, pulling in 25% more viewers than NBC.

The coming eight weeks -- which will feature four debates carried live on all the networks -- will continue to test viewer loyalties. The cable networks plan nearly ceaseless political programming, hoping to expand their audiences.

With all of those hours of coverage, however, the medium's reliance on personality-driven programming carries some risk. This week, MSNBC decided that outspoken hosts Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews would no longer anchor political news events amid charges that bias was tainting its news coverage.

Broadcast producers hope to capitalize on the aversion many viewers have to the nonstop punditry on cable news.

"All of us at CBS and NBC and ABC are able to describe, illuminate and inform in a very creative way, and that differentiates us from what goes on on cable," said Kaplan, who previously served as president of CNN and MSNBC.

To that end, CBS is devoting substantial time on its evening newscast to several recurring election features, including "Presidential Questions," in which Couric will pose a series of personal, character-related questions to Obama and Sen. John McCain.

The network is also doing a series called "Where They Stand," which examines the candidates' policy positions through stories of individual Americans. (NBC executives noted that they began a similar series in March that is continuing through the fall.)

For its part, ABC on Monday is kicking off its "50 States in 50 Days" series, which will feature reports about voter concerns from a different state each day. Later in the fall, Diane Sawyer will do two prime-time specials on the candidates and their families.

At NBC, which has used its sister cable network MSNBC to boost the profiles of its correspondents, executives said that campaign coverage would dominate the evening news for the rest of the fall.

Noted Alexandra Wallace, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News": "It's basically politics and a couple other things every night."




The ratings game

The cable news networks all enjoyed bigger gains during the recent political conventions than the broadcast news networks. Average viewership for the 7 p.m. Pacific-time hour during all seven televised nights* compared with the 2004 conventions:

*--* Network No. of viewers % chg.

NBC 5.969 million +21%

Fox News 5.392 million +46%

CNN 5.251 million +107%

ABC 4.946 million +14%

CBS 4.0 million -8%

MSNBC 2.63 million +67% *--*

*Broadcast viewership refers to the average audience during the networks' election specials, which sometimes ran slightly longer than one hour. NBC and CBS were only rated six out of seven nights this year.


Source: Nielsen Media Research

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