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Eric Schmeltzer Headshot

The Cables' Cash-Cow: The Neverending Primary

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If you're as pathetic as I am, you keep cable news on all day while you work. Watching the coverage from cable news, especially CNN and MSNBC, I've found it curious that there has seemed to be a shift in coverage over the last month or so.

As Senator Obama racked up a dozen straight wins, I remember both John King and Chuck Todd standing in front of maps, playing with vote numbers in future states, concluding that the race was pretty much lost for Hillary Clinton, at least as far as the math was concerned. As far as I can tell, nothing in the math has changed. If anything, Obama has shown the ability to wipe out Clinton gains, both by winning votes after Ohio and Texas, and by far out-pacing her in the current race for superdelegates.

Yet, rather than report that things are looking more bleak, CNN and MSNBC seem to be pushing the new meme, that this race is essentially a tie.

Why? Why the sudden change in tone that the race is mathematically out of reach, to it being an essential tie? Why the harsher focus on stories that might drive down Obama's numbers and less on those that might drive down Hillary's?

New ratings from the First Quarter of 2008 might give us an idea. From MediaBistro:

CNN did in fact win the ad-friendly A25-54 demo in prime time for the first quarter. It's the first time that's happened in six years. Year-over-year, CNN grew 27% in Total Viewers and 23% in the A25-54 demo (total day).

Anderson Cooper 360 at 10pmET posted its first ever quarterly win in the A25-54 demo. AC360 increased 60% in the demo compared to last year.

CNN also won the 9pmET and 10pmET in the A25-54 demo in the first quarter 2008.

And from MediaWeek:

Among the top-30 ad-supported nets, nearly half saw their ratings jump by double-digit percentages. The biggest gainer was the aforementioned CNN, followed by MSNBC (up 57 percent to 780,000 total viewers),

TV Week asks the all-important question:

This presidential campaign has provided such a sustained high for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC that cable news followers are asking whether the cable news channels risk a crash when the political drama subsides, or whether they can hold on to any of their expanded audiences after the election....

[Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media Intelligence Campaign Media Analysis Group] said flatly that viewer interest is "not sustainable" once the contest narrows down to two candidates.

Not being in the newsrooms, I can't tell you what their motivations are. Maybe they all sat down and concluded that their coverage was slanted and that a 140 delegate lead is now a tie, not close to insurmountable, like it was when it was a 100 delegate lead. Maybe the SNL skits hit them with an epiphany -- that it was time to give Hillary Clinton a break and go harder after Obama (as they've all certainly done, giving far more intense coverage to Reverend Wright than to the Bosnia-flap or Jake Tapper's reporting on NAFTA).

Or, maybe, they just don't want the primary to end. Maybe they don't want to try to cope with the ratings drop, and the subsequent loss of advertising dollars. Maybe like the Wu-Tang Clan says, C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). Why should the news be different than anyone else?