Politics has never monopolized the conversation on TV the way it has during this election cycle. That’s unquestionably true if we extend the definition of “conversation” to include partisan bloviation and endless conjecture.
And since those rhetorical flourishes are the stock in trade of cable news outlets, those channels, as you might imagine, have had a monster year.
For instance, from August through October, the prime-time audience for Fox News was up 99 percent, CNN 119 percent, and MSNBC 125 percent from the same interval last year.
It’s been a riveting ride. “I don’t remember an election like this,” said Phil Griffin, MSNBC president. “I do remember a month that was as incredible. That was November 2000 during the recount.”
The cable news channels couldn’t have written a juicier script.
“The stakes were so high,” said CNN president Jon Klein. “You have the war in Iraq on top of which you lay this economic meltdown.
“You had some very vivid characters taking part. That was true in the primaries when you had Hillary Clinton running against Obama. Then Sarah Palin entered the equation. So you had larger-than-life characters and life-and-death issues.”
Just as the O.J. Simpson trial vaulted obscure legal analysts to national prominence, the election, with its wall-to-wall political punditry, raised the profiles of numerous wonky personalities, like MSNBC’s rumpled Mike Murphy and CNN’s drowsy David Gergen, who looks like Homer Simpson.
The run for the White House has been for television what the holiday season traditionally represents for retailers: a frantic bonanza that fills the coffers. And that’s before you factor in the unprecedented expenditure on campaign ads. The two candidates purchased well over $400 million of TV time.
The cash injection financed some flashy new bells and whistles for the cable news crew. Did you see Anderson Cooper interviewing an incredibly three-dimensional “hologram” of musician will.i.am, who was in Chicago? Straight out of “Star Trek,” baby.
It wasn’t only news that benefited. The heightened interest also floated comedy’s clamorous fleet.
Comedy Central’s tandem of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” both posted record numbers in October. And “Saturday Night Live” is enjoying its biggest tune-in since 1994, thanks in large part to Tina Fey’s wicked Palindrome.
Curiously, the broadcast evening news programs didn’t share in the surge, although CBS and ABC both saw dramatic spikes when Katie Couric and Charles Gibson interviewed Palin, who was playing peekaboo with the press.
“The service we provide at 6:30 (p.m. EST) is the same whether there’s an election going on or not,” said Jon Banner, the executive producer of ABC’s “World News With Charles Gibson.” “We offer a concise view of the news that day along with some analysis and context.”
But the networks’ attempt to be all things to all people may have hurt them on election night, when prime-time viewership was down 21 percent on NBC and 18 percent on CBS from four years ago.
Part of that displacement is due to the Internet, which really came of age during this election cycle both as a candidate’s tool and as a primary source of information for many citizens.
“The challenge that television faced is that consumer habits have changed,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. “It’s increasingly evident that people want their news when they want it on their own timetable. Now they have the availability of information constantly updated on the Web.”
With the results in and dissected, the party is probably over for the 24-hour news heralds.
“There’s going to be an enormous drop-off just from fatigue. People across the country are going to let out their breath,” says noted TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “The cable channels weren’t drawing in a general audience anyway. It was political junkies, people who were inclined to watch politics. So those big (audience) increases will now disappear.”
Others believe the election served as a last hurrah for the electronic press.
“Mass media consumption is generally down,” said Maryanne Reed, dean of the journalism school at West Virginia University. “I think there will be a significant retrenchment in TV news now that this is dying down. They spent a lot of money covering this election. You wonder what they will be willing to pay several months down the road.”
The good news for viewers is that the long national ordeal is finally over. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.
Or do we?
“(Louisiana governor) Bobby Jindal heads to Iowa at the end of the month,” NBC’s political director Chuck Todd said by e-mail. “So let the 2012 campaign begin!”