For the first time this year, political junkies will see what it's like to be fed presidential campaign coverage by three all-news cable networks competing on a level playing field.
Both MSNBC, which launched in July of 1996, and Fox News Channel, which bowed in October of that year, came late to the last presidential dance. And each had but a sliver of established rival Cable News Network's household penetration or campaign-coverage experience.
Four years later, the game isn't even close to being the same. Fox News has established a niche with a devoted, purportedly conservative audience base. MSNBC has joined synergistic hands with not only CNBC but The NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, the Today show and its MSNBC Web site cohorts to field an 800-pound gorilla of interdivisional cooperation, and has established a following of its own.
Then there's CNN, which still carries the swagger of a self-satisfied champion, even as it acknowledges its once gnat-like competitors have evolved into worthy foes.
CNN's ratings have slipped precipitously in terms of both its all-day and political-coverage numbers. The Turner Broadcasting System Inc.-owned news net remains at the top in terms of branding and reputation.
During this protracted election campaign in particular, the race between the news nets is becoming more and more of a three-way (or even four-way) contest. More significant than the individual audience figures-or even the spin of spin-is the fact that TV viewers are being served their political-news meal more sumptously than ever before.
CABLE OWNS IT
Also notable is the fact that the entire election ballgame will be played out on cable. Though ABC, CBS and NBC remain the bigger draw in terms of sheer households, they're no longer the place where presidential elections are won or lost. In many respects, they've ceded that once-exclusive mandate to the cable-news competition.
It's been heading this way for a good long time. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, the "Big Three" sliced their financial, staffing and airtime commitments to the primaries and major-party conventions. Any obligation the old-line networks felt to carry every step of the election process has steadily disappeared under pressure from their entertainment divisions.
Viewership for over-the-air convention coverage became miniscule. Ratings indicated that the public just didn't much care anymore. As a result, the networks stopped caring, too.
Since the networks' service responsibilities no longer applied in an era of apathy, executives figured they could make a few bucks by squeezing convention coverage into a single hour or so per night.
Cable's all-news nets then seized the mantle. Those who want to follow every last staged morsel of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia or the Democratic gathering in Los Angeles will have more than ample options
via CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel, CNBC and C-SPAN.
Viewers who don't care which candidate receives all of the delegates from the great state of Ohio can catch every last second of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. This should satisfy just about every viewer-except, maybe, the uneasy shadow of Edward R. Murrow.
The sheer tonnage of staff and financial resources that the cable nets will devote to bringing this election into America's living rooms speaks to the wholesale sea change in political coverage. It also underscores the importance each channel places on making its coverage comprehensive and on getting it right.
CNN, MSNBC and Fox News will waste little energy worrying about whether they are devoting too much precious airtime to the July 29 Republican convention or the Democratic confab, which kicks off Aug. 15. CNN's crew of correspondents, anchors, writers and support staff is so massive, the network has asked to build four sky booths in both the Los Angeles and Philadelphia convention halls.
By one estimate, the three major broadcast networks each spent $5 million to cover the 1996 conventions. None is expected to spend nearly that much for Campaign 2000-but CNN will likely spend four times that amount.
HAVE TO DO IT
Staffing the conventions at such a high level is really a no brainer, said CNN executive vice president of news Sid Bedingfield.
"From the start, we have wanted to be the network of record for this presidential campaign," Bedingfield said. "That means being at everything and getting it better than everybody else, from New Hampshire to Iowa to the debates to Super Tuesday to the conventions and clear through election night.
"We had more than 200 staffers in New Hampshire alone, working the story there in the week leading up to it," he added.
Bedingfield said CNN would never consider soft-pedaling its convention coverage, even though the nominees are a foregone conclusion and the speeches limited to propaganda.
"The conventions may not actually nominate the candidates this year, but they remain a central part of the overall campaign," Bedingfield insisted. "This is the way for the parties to communicate their agendas to the nation.
"In terms of context and perspective, the conventions stand as critical moments to analyze and dissect the party message. So, hell yes, they're important."
But Steve Capus, executive producer of MSNBC's nightly The News with Brian Williams, cautioned that it would be foolish for any net to cover every last photo op in the name of completeness.
"We all just have to be sophisticated and selective about it," Capus says. "Viewers can't be fooled, anyway. They know what's important and what isn't.
"We will cover what we consider to be important at the conventions. Yet at the same time, we can't lose sight of the fact that a president is being elected through this process. The fact there may be little genuine suspense to be found isn't all that significant."
That said, today's conventions are deliberately designed to avoid anything that smacks of news-at least in the mind of MSNBC vice president and general manager Erik Sorenson.
"The parties clearly arrange the conventions so they no longer include the discussion of significant policy decisions," Sorenson said. "You see, any exposure of policy involves scrutiny and questions. Those are generally bad for business."
That being the case, the news nets must staff up for the conventions to snoop through each nook and cranny and uncover any measly nugget of news. That could mean anywhere from 175 to 325 employees apiece.
For the entire political season, NBC's news units will collectively spend $25 million to cover the 2000 campaign, while CNN lays out an estimated $20 million and Fox and CBS spend $15 million each.
IT'S THE DEMOS, STUPID
CNN, MSNBC and FNC have been at virtually every primary and campaign stop, debate or scene of a major political story. MSNBC and FNC have posted regular year-to-year ratings gains in primetime in every major adult demo, illustrating that when it comes to the oft-tedious process of covering a presidential election, broadcast's albatross has evolved into cable's pot of gold.
That can be attributed to the mindset of the all-news viewer. Unlike those who watch the full-service broadcast nets, the news-net viewers are predisposed to take an interest in the world around them.
But another factor drove audience to cable-news networks throughout the primaries: insurgent Republican candidate John McCain.
"McCain, and to some extent [Democrat Bill] Bradley too, made a huge difference to all of us," said Fox News Channel exec producer Marty Ryan. "A lot of people who weren't normally interested in the minutiae of elections suddenly got drawn in by McCain's passion and message, and our numbers reflected that. Both he and Bradley supplied a real competitive element."
Since primary season ended and Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore were unofficially coronated as the respective Republican and Democratic candidates, there has been a lull in coverage. The Nielsens have reflected that, Ryan acknowledged.
And what's often lost in the heated argument between CNN, MSNBC and FNC is the fact that the audience they're quibbling over is almost ridiculously tiny.
"We do have a much smaller audience base," offered MSNBC's Sorenson. "But that also works in our favor, to the extent that our smaller niche target encourages us to cover things like the debates that the broadcasters would consider financial suicide."
As broadcasters continue to scale down their election efforts, CNN has committed to build up its coverage. For its hourlong daily Inside Politics alone, nearly 50 CNN correspondents have traversed the country non-stop for the past eight months.
"We have simply thrown down the gauntlet this year and said, We're going for it like we've never gone for it before,'" said Inside Politics co-host Judy Woodruff. "This may sound sugary, but it's sincere. What this commitment really comes down to is a determination never to just regurgitate.
"When it comes to covering the story of our next president, we feel that we owe our viewers something a little extra, you know?" Woodruff added. "And with all of the competition that's now coming after us, I don't think there's better time to display that kind of attitude."