Television loves a good horse race. And so far, the neck-and-neck presidential race heats in the Democratic and Republican fields have created the biggest—and earliest—Super Tuesday in memory.
The broadcast networks are poised to dive deeper with expanded election night coverage, while at least one will go wall-to-wall. ABC News has taken the unusual step of blowing out an entire evening's worth of programming, sacrificing reruns of According to Jim and Carpoolers to the wonk gods for five hours of political coverage anchored by Charles Gibson, Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos.
“At ABC, the decision has been to give [this story] the time that it deserves,” says David Westin, president of ABC News. “And frankly at each turn when we thought the story would take a turn to become narrower and less interesting, it's taken a turn to become broader and more interesting.”
Indeed, as the writers' strike drags on, this election night—which involves states with more than 40% of the U.S. population—might well offer the freshest and most compelling drama on television.
In 2004, ABC News and its broadcast brethren limited Super Tuesday coverage to live news cut-ins during February's Super Tuesday, which wasn't very “super” with only seven states holding primaries or caucuses, and the traditional Super Tuesday, in March, which included 10 states.
This time, 24 states will hold caucuses or primaries on what has been dubbed Tsunami Tuesday or Giga Tuesday by Washington pundits. News divisions have their work cut out for them.
“This is going to be more complicated than any election night any of us have ever covered, especially on the Democratic side,” says CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer. “We can't just say Hillary Clinton has won California because it's going to be who got the most delegates out there. And so trying to figure out who got the delegates and where the delegates are, all of that is going to be very complicated and it's going to be difficult for us to untangle.”
CBS News, which had planned an hour of live coverage, last week added a second hour of live coverage with live updates for the West Coast helmed by Katie Couric, Schieffer and Jeff Greenfield. NBC will limit its broadcast coverage to an expanded one-hour Nightly News With Brian Williams and one hour at 10 p.m. while providing wall-to-wall coverage on sister network MSNBC.
Of course, CNN and Fox News, which have taken the lead with campaign coverage, also will provide live, comprehensive reports throughout the evening. And BBC America, which in October launched a 7 p.m. newscast for the state-side channel as well as international signal BBC World, also will preempt regular programming for five hours of live Super Tuesday analysis that will continue on the newscast on Wednesday, when Ted Koppel will be there to contribute perspective gleaned from almost 40 years at ABC News.
“Somebody here asked me, 'What will the broadcast networks do on Super Tuesday?'” says Rome Hartman, who capped nearly 25 years at CBS News with a stint as Couric's executive producer before leaving to launch BBC America's evening newscast. “I said, 'Well, the one with the weakest primetime schedule will go to news.' That's typically, unfortunately how it works. If somebody's got a really strong entertainment schedule, you couldn't get into primetime with a crowbar.”
Fox, of course, will offer alternative programming with American Idol.
With the 2008 campaign, television news collectively might become a source of ratings pride, especially if the writers' strike lingers.
“It's just a great story,” adds Hartman. “And anybody at any news division, particularly the broadcast organizations—they have so many good people and so much expertise that there's often much more capacity than there is ability to use it. After a while, the drumbeat inside of people who are really champing to cover this story becomes pretty substantial.”
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