Cable networks thrived on lengthy primary campaign

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - If the long Democratic nominating process does in fact end this week, one couldn’t have asked for an odder weekend of coverage to top off what has been a surprising six-month run.

CNN and MSNBC provided more or less constant coverage of the Democrats’ panel to decide the fate of the Michigan and Florida delegates, an event that seemed better suited to C-SPAN.

“You’re asking for a fair reflection of a flawed primary,” Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told Clinton advocate Harold Ickes on Saturday afternoon. Not exactly Ronald Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” in the annals of political history.

Sunday’s sole primary, in Puerto Rico, didn’t provide much more drama. The contest evaporated quickly, leaving the networks to declare Hillary Clinton the winner by a 2-1 margin soon after the polls closed at the odd time of 3 p.m. EDT.

But if the weekend didn’t have the drama we’ve become accustomed to in this once-in-a-lifetime campaign, you probably won’t hear many complaints from the cable news channels. Tuesday night’s primaries in Montana and South Dakota end the season.

“It’s been an amazing ride that we never thought would happen, these primary nights,” says David Bohrman, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “We’ve done 16, 17, 18 primary nights, which is probably 15 more than we thought we’d do if you had asked me a year ago. But it’s been great drama, and I think we’ve done really well at it.”

Each network has come out of the primary season with something to show for it. Here are some themes that have dominated the cable story line so far:

- The best political team on television. Despite what CNN claims at almost every opportunity, each network has put together their own “dream team” of coverage. CNN has depth and breadth -- one rival says “they look like they’ve got the operator section from Time Life” -- MSNBC draws on Tim Russert and Brian Williams and Andrea Mitchell and Tom Brokaw, among others. Fox News has its own hustling reporting team.

- Wall vs. board. A cross between iPod Touch and big-screen TV made a big splash on CNN and Fox News this year, duly manned by John King and Bill Hemmer, respectively. CNN’s wall debuted in New Hampshire, giving viewers a closer look at what happened county by county as the voting rolled in. It’s been a big part of coverage ever since, including Sunday’s primary -- though neither King nor Hemmer were there.

- The emergence of MSNBC. A few years ago, when MSNBC said it would stake its claim as the place for politics, it seemed a swing for the fences from a lifetime .200 hitter. Now, it seems like it might have been a very smart move. MSNBC is up double digits in every demo compared with last year, with “Countdown” coming out ahead of CNN’s “Election Center” in May and “Hardball” doing the same to “Lou Dobbs Tonight.” NBC senior vp Phil Griffin says the network is building a following, something it’s never had.

“This is not a flash in the pan. The growth started for the midterm election in 2006,” he says. “What you see is a much more loyal audience to the channel.” CNN, too, can claim ratings gains.

- Not everyone’s a fan of MSNBC. MSNBC ran afoul of some journalists, who say that having Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews anchor primary coverage is anything but fair and balanced. And after several run-ins with the Clinton campaign -- Matthews apologized for a remark made this year and David Shuster was sidelined after a poor choice of words about Chelsea Clinton -- MSNBC has been on the defensive. Griffin insists that Olbermann and Matthews know to play it straight when they’re anchoring, pointing to last week’s Pew study that finds the tone of Clinton and Obama coverage about the same.

“The bullet ride that we’re on in terms of scoring an audience and challenging CNN and challenging Fox is unprecedented in our history,” Griffin says. “I think everybody’s got a little whiplash.”

- A lifting of the Fox embargo lifts both sides. The Democrats mostly shut out Fox News Channel from the process, keeping it from doing a lucrative debate. An embargo urged by former candidate John Edwards didn’t hold, however. Bill O’Reilly’s interview with Clinton -- spread over two parts -- did big business on what already was the top-rated show in cable news. And after a well-publicized “Obama Watch” designed at getting the candidate to appear as promised on “Fox News Sunday,” it solidified the channel’s place as the spot to reach centrist Dems.

Getting beat in the ratings on primary nights hasn’t affected Fox News as much because it’s been able to put in a steadier performance, not relying on election-night coverage for big ratings. The other networks have.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter