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Going Live: History in the Making

The pitched tenor of the 2008 campaign has sparked discussion inside broadcast news divisions grappling with how much airtime to dedicate to the primaries and caucuses. This is a departure from recent election cycles, when networks have all but abdicated live coverage to the cable news channels. Cable's gains during the 2008 campaign have certainly not gone unnoticed by their broadcast brethren.

As an unprecedented 24 states head to the polls on Super Tuesday, ABC will dedicate an unprecedented number of evening hours—at least five—to live coverage. CBS also will expand beyond the requisite one hour.

B&C's Marisa Guthrie talked to ABC News President David Westin about the primary season and the public service mission of TV news.

Was it difficult getting primetime real estate for political coverage?

When you take all of primetime, that's a pretty major step and it has to be justified and people asked for justification. But I think everyone at the network as well as at the news division appreciates the historic nature of this contest. We said all along, we have an hour booked [for Super Tuesday] but we may need more just depending on where the story is at that point. And as the story developed we went to them just a couple of weeks ago and said, given where the story is, we really think it would be justified to take all of primetime. And within a matter of hours—it wasn't days—they agreed.

Do you think your broadcast competitors are doing enough?

I make it a policy not to comment on competitors. I think from our point of view there's been a recognition going back quite a few months and we've talked about it a lot internally, that this is in many respects a historic race and not just because you don't have a natural front-runner on either side. Beyond that it comes at a time when I think it's no exaggeration to say the nation as a whole is facing larger and more strategic problems, not just issues, than any time that I can remember since first voting back in 1972.

Most news divisions were asked to do more news programming in order to fill anticipated schedule holes caused by the Writers Guild of America strike. But so far, we haven't seen much of that programming on ABC. Why not?

I think number one, ABC had a fair amount [of entertainment programming] that they ordered in backup that they wanted to get on the schedule. And in all honesty, money is an issue. They've sold a lot of advertising time for entertainment programming. So there is some cost when they pre-empt. Even with news programming that perhaps would do better in the ratings, there's still some financial cost. I think ABC also, not knowing how long the strike would go on, they wanted to pace themselves. They from the beginning wanted the news programming available when they needed it.

Will we start seeing some of that programming soon?

Of course, because as you point out, it's been ordered and it's ready to go.

Broadcast news divisions obviously perform a public service. Do you think the spirit of that is still alive in this climate of shrinking profits, fragmenting audiences and digital volatility?

Yes, absolutely. I've said this long before this year. If we were simply profit maximizing, we would never cover a presidential election. People don't understand that. ABC News, and therefore ABC, loses money every four years on presidential elections. And we lose in the tens of millions of dollars. People think, oh, there's all this political money coming in. We don't get political advertising money. For us, it costs a lot of money: all of the people deployed and the exit polls and the analysis, apart from the preemptions. So that's very much a public service that ABC recognizes. It's also something that reinforces what ABC News is over the long haul and whether you should turn to us and whether you should trust us. So I think it's a wise investment, but I'm biased.

What about coverage plans for the nominating conventions?

It really depends on what happens. If it ends up being a brokered convention, which hasn't happened since 1952, then I'm sure we'll be wall-to-wall. If it's an infomercial, then we're going to be something less than wall-to-wall.

So whom did you vote for in 1972?

I never tell whom I vote for. I don't even tell my wife. But I do vote.