Politics could go primetime



A prolonged writers strike could spark something of a revival in the kind of political coverage on the broadcast networks that has long been ceded to cable.

At least one broadcast network -- NBC -- is allocating a minimum of an hour in primetime to cover the so-called "Super Duper Tuesday" string of 20 primaries across the U.S. that ultimately could determine each party's presidential candidate. While that was in the works before the strike, the networks aren't ruling out an increase in airtime to the news division that night or in early January with the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.

As the only broadcast network with a fully distributed cable news platform, NBC's political unit will be up and running full blast no matter what. MSNBC, like Fox News Channel and CNN, already is planning wall-to-wall coverage of the primaries.

"If at any given point that we decide that it's appropriate, we can always flip the switch and go to the network," NBC News president Steve Capus said.

NBC, ABC and CBS are planning at least "cut-ins," brief updates as the polls close Jan. 8 in New Hampshire and Jan. 3 in Iowa as the caucus reports come available.

"If the opportunity presents itself and we think there's a big enough story, it's very easy for us to do it," Capus said Friday. "But it's a little premature for us to say that it will happen."

But if the writers strike stretches into 2008 -- straining the networks' original resources -- the news divisions might find their entertainment counterparts more amenable to forking over valuable primetime. It's less likely to increase the amount of coverage for Iowa and New Hampshire results. While the cable channels go full blast, the broadcast networks traditionally have been less keen about interrupting dramas and sitcoms.

"An hour is an awful lot to fill for the Iowa caucus (on the broadcast network)," one network executive said. "But as things change, it may be something we revisit if there's news leading up to it." Many of these decisions are made on the fly.

CBS also is likely to have an hour in primetime -- more than likely 10 p.m. EST -- devoted to Super Tuesday. That would be a change from 2004, when it was a month later and also not as many states wee participating. CBS News had reports eight times that night, several as crawls across the bottom of the screen. CBS also had one-minute reports a handful of times during Iowa and New Hampshire.

ABC said it's too early to say what will happen. It's probably unlikely that the network will increase its coverage of Iowa and New Hampshire, which back in 2004 also consisted of brief updates throughout the night as the polls closed as well as an extended version of "Nightline." But the door still is open for an hour of primetime coverage of Super Tuesday. Back in 2004, Peter Jennings anchored brief cut-ins throughout the night.

Politics will take center stage in primetime Jan. 5, with ABC's back-to-back presidential debates from the campus of St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. ABC anchor Charles Gibson will moderate both the Republican and Democratic debates in a marathon session. But the debates being in primetime -- the only ones on a broadcast network there so far this election cycle -- have nothing to do with the writers strike.

The five-hour block for the debate was set aside before the strike occurred. It has more to do with the fact that ESPN on ABC's college football series will be over by then.

There's also the president's State of the Union Address, which occurs sometime in January or February in primetime. NBC will more than likely commit two hours in primetime to the address, the Democrats' response and analysis. It's not clear yet what the other networks will do.