It was four short months ago that cable news pundits were giddy with the thought of a brokered Republican convention come August, sustaining interest in the presidential election through the primary season and the summer months. Now, with the cast of colorful contenders having dropped out and Mitt Romney all but assured the GOP nomination, viewers have lost interest, and cable news ratings (especially CNN’s) are suffering.
With that in mind, B&C caught up with MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow at the Cable Show in Boston last week, where she told us why election coverage isn’t getting viewers, what to expect from the conventions this summer and why she is not betting on big audiences for the debates this fall. An edited transcript follows.
The New York Times’Nate Silver wrote recently that we’re still in preseason in regard to the general election, and that campaign stories lately have tended to be trivial because voters aren’t paying attention. Do you agree?
Totally. I don’t think that voters are dumb, but I think that voters are busy, and people do not think about voting until they have to start thinking about who they’re voting for. Unless people are political actors in some other way than just voting, there’s no reason really to expect them to be engaged with this stuff in a deep way except when something really big happens. And so far, nothing really big has happened. So far, it’s just about figuring out who each of these guys is.
So if we’re in a fallow period now, when will we start to see people pay attention again?
I think it’s the conventions and Labor Day. And I think the conventions are maybe more important this year than they have been in previous years. In 2008, particularly on the Democratic side, but also a little bit on the Republican side, there was real character-driven drama about who was going to be the nominee, and that made people interested in what was going on. So the conventions were the debut of Sarah Palin and some other stuff, but it was essentially trying to put some drama on something people are already paying attention to. Right now, nobody is paying attention. Cable news ratings are down across the board. The less you talk about the election, the more your ratings go up. The conventions are actually going to have a narrative import this year that they did not certainly have in ’08. That’s kind of exciting, to know that a political event is going to be politically important.
As a TV anchor, are you trying to fi nd ways to get the general viewer interested in the election right now, or have you resigned yourself to the fact that it is only political junkies paying attention?
I don’t think about who my audience is that much in terms of trying to come up with what I am going to say. I always approach the day’s news as what’s important and how can I explain it. Honestly, sometimes the most important stuff in the country—the stuff that requires the most explanation in order to become useful information for people—is not the stuff that’s in the campaign. So I sort of approach it agnostically every day, not knowing how much campaign stuff is going to be in the news. There’s no assignment: You have to do X [amount of] campaign coverage. Obviously, that wouldn’t even make sense at this point since it’s not rating.
We did see the debates rate highly back during the primaries. What level of viewership are you anticipating for the presidential debates this fall?
I may be wrong—and I’m bad at predictions—but my sense is that the reason people were watching the Republican debates is because of that freaking cast of characters in the Republican debates. Romney and Obama—even if you really like one of them or the other one— you not only know who your guy is, you can pretty much predict everything he’s going to say. And if you really dislike the other guy, you know who he is and you can pretty much predict what he’s going to say. So I expect that those debates will be substantive and useful to people that want to pay attention to them, but I don’t think they’re going to attract casual observers the way that the Republican debates did, simply because the people in them were so sparky. The sense of the unknown -- who knows what Herman Cain is going to say -- we’re not going to have that in the general [election].
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