WASHINGTON—When the polls close in Pennsylvania Tuesday night, network television viewers will have a choice: They can watch Kristi Yamaguchi flash some cunning new moves on ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars,” see if Sharon or Sheila gets kicked out of the house on CBS’ “Big Brother,” or stare at old “Saturday Night Live” skits on NBC.
But if they want to find out who won the Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, they’ll have to tune in to a cable news channel.
In an election year that features the most dramatic and hard-fought campaign in 40 years, TV’s broadcast networks have all but ceded coverage of politics to their upstart cable competitors.
“This election has been strictly a cable event,” says Sam Roberts, chairman of the University of Miami’s broadcast journalism department and a former CBS producer. “The only time you’ll see real airtime devoted to politics on the broadcast networks is Sunday morning, on the talk shows, when no one is watching ... But on the 24-hour cable news channels, they go as long as they want, as often as they want.”
About 60 percent of television viewers who watch TV news watch it on cable. And the coverage gap extends to almost every facet of the campaign:
The broadcast networks stick to their entertainment programming even on crucial primary nights, relegating news updates to occasional crawls marching across the bottom of the screen. On Feb. 5, when 24 states were choosing convention delegates, NBC showed fat people climbing ropes on “The Biggest Loser” while its heavy political hitters—Brian Williams, Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw—moved over to anchor live coverage on cable cousin MSNBC.
Of the dozens of debates so far, only five have appeared on a big broadcast network. And while cable networks sometimes air as many as five live speeches or political forums a day, not even the most dramatic make it to the broadcast airwaves: Obama’s March 18 speech on race, the most-discussed single event of the campaign so far, was shown on all the cable news channels but none of the networks.
Political stories on the broadcast networks’ evening newscasts are brief and desultory, often no more than an anchor reading rewritten wire stories. On cable, politics sometimes seem to be taking over entire newscasts. “On ABC or NBC or CBS, you might have three minutes of political news, maybe five on a really heavy day,” says Marty Ryan, director of political coverage at Fox News Channel, who monitors his broadcast competitors closely. “On Brit Hume’s Fox News 6 p.m. show, we probably do 20 minutes every night.”
Gaining the upper hand has paid handsome ratings dividends for the cable news nets: The number of viewers is up 11 percent over last year and 21 percent in prime time. A Pew Research Center poll earlier this year showed that more voters are getting their news on the presidential campaign from cable than from broadcast television.
The surrender of the political story has ominous overtones for broadcast news. Cable’s instant blanket coverage of big events like the Gulf War and the Columbine massacre long ago established it as the go-to place for big, breaking stories. But losing their dominance on coverage of politics at a time when the ratings for broadcast networks’ evening newscasts are in steep decline, financial pressures are mounting and CBS has even discussed turning over its news operations to cable rival CNN could sound the death knell for broadcast news, many analysts believe.
“These viewers will never come back to the broadcast networks,” says Roberts. “Truth to be told, if you talked off the record to network executives, they’d admit they want to get rid of their news divisions. They’ve always wanted to, but we’re approaching a time when they may really be able to do it.”
Chris Wallace, who worked for all three broadcast network news divisions before moving to Fox News in 2003, says he first noticed the decline in broadcast political coverage during the 2004 conventions. “I was up on the podium with CBS’ John Roberts and NBC’s Brian Williams,” he recalls, “and we all had monitors so we could see what our networks were showing. I glanced over at Williams’ screen, and NBC was showing people eating bugs on `Fear Factor.’ It was pretty clear right then where things were headed.”
The move away from politics is nonetheless baffling to Wallace, who grew up around network news—his father, Mike, has been with CBS nearly six decades, and stepfather Bill Leonard headed CBS’s news division.
“Politics has always been the bread-and-butter story for network news,” he argues. “I remember in the early `60s, when my stepfather was running the election unit at CBS, he helped developed the voter-projection computers that allowed CBS to start calling election-night winners soon after the polls closed. That was a big, enormous deal—that’s when Walter Cronkite started gaining on NBC’s `Huntley-Brinkley Report.’ I really don’t understand their reasoning.”
Other TV news executives say it’s simply a matter of airtime. “On March 4, the day of the Texas primary, we had 14 correspondent teams in the field,” observes Sam Feist, CNN’s director of political news. “We have the airtime to be able to take advantage of all that material. If you’re a broadcast network with half an hour a night, what are you going to do with all those correspondents? It’s not a fair fight.”
But viewers’ expectations have changed, too. Phil Griffin, who as vice president of NBC News in charge of MSNBC has a foot in both camps, says even the term “broadcast” may be obsolete. The future of TV, he argues, is narrow-casting.
“The whole world has splintered,” Griffin says. “You don’t see the `Today’ show doing sports or Hollywood entertainment now because there’s ESPN and E! and Entertainment Tonight ... In television, you go to different places for different stuff, and where you find politics is on cable.”
No network has profited more from cable’s accession to the political-news throne than MSNBC, which just posted the highest quarterly Nielsen ratings in the channel’s history. That hasn’t been lost on NBC reporters and anchors, who are migrating to the cable side along with viewers. Even high-octane White House reporter David Gregory, seeking more airtime for his political stories, volunteered for duty at MSNBC—and promptly got his own nightly show, “Race for the White House.”
“For a long time at NBC, the attitude toward MSNBC was, `Oh, well, that’s just a cable operation, that’s just a stepchild,’” says Gregory. “I can assure you that’s no longer the case, especially for those of us who spend a lot of time covering politics ... The broadcast networks are never going to cede the floor completely, but no question—cable has become the place for the political story.”