Campaign 2016’s Early Winner: Cable

The 2016 presidential election is a year away, and yet this race for the White House has already established itself as arguably the most influential political campaign in cable television history.

For large, mainstream cable-news networks like Fox News Channel, CNN and CNBC, the Republican and Democratic debates have provided record ratings and, at least for now, some sizable year-to-year post-debate ratings lifts for their respective primetime lineups as they continue to cover the presidential candidates.

For niche and upstart news networks without scheduled televised debates, the 2016 presidential campaign is shaping up to be nothing short of a brand-defining event. Networks such as Al Jazeera America, One America News Network and Fusion are looking to superserve their respective audiences with issues-oriented political coverage that will stand out in a very noisy and crowded political-news marketplace.

“It’s actually happened this season a lot earlier than anyone expected,” Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy said. “It used to be that the political season began after Labor Day of the year the candidates were running. Now it’s starting much earlier, so people are really excited.”

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Indeed, Fox News Channel, CNN, CNBC and Fox Business Network have all set network ratings records with their various Republican and Democratic debates. The latest network to benefit from viewer interest in the GOP contest is FBN, which averaged 13.5 million viewers for its economics-driven debate last Tuesday (Nov. 10).

FBN’s performance follows record-setting showings by sister network Fox News’s Aug. 6 Republican debate, which drew 25 million viewers, cable’s largest-ever non-sports audience; CNN’s Sept. 16 Republican debate, which pulled in 23 million viewers; and CNBC’s much-talked-about Oct. 28 Republican debate, which garnered 14 million watchers.

CNN also drew 15 million viewers for its Oct. 13 Democratic debate.

The debates have helped all three networks post year-to-year gains for their primetime news and political-related programming as viewers seek out more information on the candidates and their positions.

“For these networks, in many ways, it’s a unique situation like a Super Bowl — they’re going to get a lot more sampling of viewers that normally do not watch or only occasionally watch their network,” Bill Carroll, senior vice president and director of content strategy for Katz Media Group, said. “Over time, we’ll see how they capitalize on that with what they do in front of and behind the debates and whether they can expose viewers to their personalities and their approach to news.”

The early interest in the 2016 campaign is not lost on new and upstart news networks that see the election season as an opportunity to firmly establish their brands with viewers. But although it’s important for niche and targeted news networks to cover breaking news from the candidates on the campaign trail (alongside the broadcasters and mainstream cable-news networks), it’s also crucial for those smaller services to provide content that’s relevant to their specific target audiences, network executives said.

“We see an incredible role for Fusion to play in addressing some of the gaps that you’re seeing in the coverage that we’re getting from traditional media companies,” said Daniel Eilemberg, senior vice president of Fusion, a news network targeted to millennial viewers.

For the two-year-old Fusion, jointly owned by Disney-ABC Television Group and Univision Communications, that means focusing on issues of interest to a young, diverse audience — including many first-time voters — such as climate change and technology.

“This is a generation that is more diverse and numerous than any other generation in the history of America, and they’ve seen technology affect their lives in different ways,” Eilemberg said. “They want to know what the government is going to do about these things, and we’re not having those discussions.”

Fusion doesn’t have journalists embedded with each respective campaign, but Eilemberg said the network’s reporters are working to get candidates to respond to specific issues across the country.

He pointed to the efforts of Jorge Ramos — host of the network’s America With Jorge Ramos and anchor of Univision’s flagship newscast Noticiero Univision — who famously in August was escorted out of a press conference for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump after pressing Trump on his controversial views on immigration.

“We have a group of journalists that have really strong specializations, and we’ve asked them to track the candidates on those issues across the country,” Fusion’s Eilemberg said. “They are asking the questions that other reporters may not be asking.”

Al Jazeera America will tackle its first presidential election by focusing on the stories behind the candidates and the election process. The 61 millionsubscriber network — which launched in 2013 after Qatar-based Al Jazeera purchased the Al Gore-founded channel Current TV — will partner with the Center for Public Integrity to investigate the flow of money into political campaigns, AJAM president Kate O’Brian said.

The network’s “Buying of the President” franchise will yield several special reports in 2016, including in-depth financial profiles of the top candidates and the role of so-called Super PACs within the election process.

“We’re talking about the candidates and their policies, but we’re explaining to our viewers what the effects of those policies might be and going for the human story,” O’Brian said. “We believe its important to not repeat the same lines over and over again all day long, but to move the issues and stories forward by illuminating things for our audience.”

The need to provide viewers with an alternative voice to mainstream broadcast and cable news outlets is a priority for up-and-coming news networks. TheBlaze, founded in 2011 by conservative media personality Glenn Beck, will tailor its election coverage to connect more directly with a core audience that is already engaged with the brand through its website.

TheBlaze TV CEO Kraig Kitchin said the network will look to empower viewers through its coverage of the issues, subjects and candidates during an election season where more people are looking to get their voices heard. TheBlaze will talk to its audience via social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which Kitchin called an unprecedented “amplification” of individual voices with regards to politics.

The presidential election “is an approachable conversation more than ever before,” Kitchin said. “There is a sense of empowerment; that individuals have a voice in this conversation, either through social media or through mass media or through participation in events where many more people think that they may have influence on an outcome by their participation.”

Al Jazeera America will tap the electorate with a series of regularly scheduled vignettes in which viewers from across the political spectrum will have a chance to discuss the issues that affect them, O’Brian said.

And the candidates themselves are showing interest in alternative coverage from the smaller news outlets, network executives said. Newsmax’s Ruddy said candidates from Trump to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have already appeared on the network. Newsmax hopes to invite all of the GOP candidates to a presidential forum somewhere in the South Florida area in February, Ruddy said, but no further details were available at press time.

“We see Newsmax as a neutral platform and we want all the candidates to be able to come on and detail their platforms and positions without feeling that we’re going to ambush them or give them gotcha questions,” he said. “We’ve had almost every single Republican candidate in the field appear on the network and most appear pretty regularly. This is really democracy at work.”

TheBlaze earlier this month threw its hat into the ring to host the Republican National Committee’s Feb. 26 GOP debate in Houston. The RNC pulled the debate from NBC after what GOP officials said were biased questions from CNBC moderators during the Oct. 28 debate. The RNC has yet to disclose further plans for the Houston event.

In a letter to the RNC, TheBlaze’s Beck said the network was prepared to “produce a new kind of debate in both substance and distribution that would stay away from questions that produce only ‘sound bites.’ ”

With all of the cable news networks offering news on the 2016 campaign almost a year before Election Day, some executives expressed concern that viewer fatigue could set in even before next year’s primary season kicks off . “There is certainly can be some viewer fatigue, so you have to find a balance and a fi ne line with that,” TheBlaze’s Kitchin said.

To avoid that situation, Al Jazeera’s O’Brian said networks need to keep providing interesting, thought-provoking content that will keep viewers riveted throughout the long political season.

“If you are a media organization that is repetitive and does the same thing all the time, viewers will look for something else,” she said. “There are those who can spend all day talking about one soundbite from one candidate, and have pundits weighing in on the views of the horse race. It’s not about the horse race, but about the issues.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.