Nets prep for primary push


NEW YORK -- Heading into Tuesday's Texas and Ohio primaries, it's anyone's guess whether the presidential campaign coverage will continue at its high-octane pitch.

Since the fall, the 2008 campaign has been very, very good for the cable and broadcast news divisions. Each of the cable channels has enjoyed strong ratings in and around primary coverage and debates, with CNN scoring several cable records and ABC's Democratic debate before the New Hampshire primary also a record-breaker.

Network execs are playing it close to the vest about the immediate future of the coverage. They simply don't know what's going to happen Tuesday, when big states Texas and Ohio as well as Vermont and Rhode Island will vote.

"We plan to look at how it stands on Wednesday morning," ABC News political director David Chalian said.

NBC News senior vp Phil Griffin agreed, saying that the interest would ratchet even further with a continued primary race. But he said he didn't expect too much of a drop-off if it became a Democrat-Republican campaign.

"I think the interest will remain high," he said.

A split decision on the Democratic side Tuesday could reverse conventional wisdom again in this topsy-turvy campaign. Predictions are something that CNN political director Sam Feist has learned not to make.

"Anybody who would have tried to make a prediction over the course of this year would have been wrong," he said.

The networks are trotting out their stars again tonight, with CBS' Katie Couric in Ohio and ABC's Charles Gibson in Texas. Once more, the networks' decision desks will get an all-night workout. The cable channels, for instance, are planning nonstop coverage through the night, and the broadcasters are scheduling brief updates during primetime.

But one thing seems certain: If the campaign continues to have the same fevered life beyond Tuesday, then there will be a big push for at least one more debate between Democratic challengers Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It's likely that ABC and NBC are vying for the next debate, if there is one, to be held somewhere in Philadelphia. Neither NBC nor ABC would comment about the possibility.

The networks, seeing the success of the most recent debates on CNN and MSNBC, are likely to want to continue that practice before the next big battleground, the April 22 primary in Pennsylvania.

"I think everybody's waiting to see what happens (tonight), and after that there will be renewed interest," Feist said. The last primaries are June 3 in Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota.

But even if the Democratic nominee is settled soon, it doesn't mean cable networks think the interest is going to drop off completely.

"I don't see why we can't keep going (in the ratings)," Griffin said. "Our ratings have been very good for the last nine months with all the debates and all the interest in the campaign."