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Has the presidential race finally had its Tina Fey moment? After a summer in which political television programs generated lackluster ratings compared with those of the 2008 election season, a leaked video of Mitt Romney dismissing 47 percent of Americans as “dependent on the government” has boosted tune-in for topical broadcasts. And while political shows in general are seeing viewership surges in the wake of the conventions, the specter of a Romney presidency seems to be energizing left-leaning viewers. “Ever since the Tea Party, there has been a huge enthusiasm gap,” says news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “The Democrats are finally closing that.”
MSNBC seems to be reaping the greatest rewards. Entering the 2012 campaign in distant third place among cable news outlets, the liberal-oriented network posted big primetime wins among its target adults 25-to-54 demographic during the week of Sept. 17 to 21. The Rachel Maddow Show and Lawrence O’Donnell‘s The Last Word scored atypical victories over the perennially dominant Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren at 9 and 10 p.m., respectively.
“There’s no question that the interest, all around, went up,” says MSNBC president Phil Griffin, citing the Romney video, which leaked Sept. 17, as a pull for all of cable news. “This campaign right now is so close, nobody who’s interested in politics isn’t tuning in.”
Maddow knows this well. The host, who joined the network’s lineup before the 2008 election, posted her first demo win over Hannity since his broadcast lost co-host Alan Colmes in 2009. She even bested cable news king Bill O’Reilly‘s 8 p.m. demo showing the day after the Romney video broke, pulling ahead of his Sept. 18 broadcast by more than 20,000 adults 25 to 54 with 703,000 viewers.
Fox News, still safely winning the full three-hour primetime block in viewers and the key demo, also can boast the greatest retention of its demo convention audience (82 percent), edging MSNBC’s 72 percent and embarrassing CNN’s 49 percent.
The ratings uptick is a welcome boost during an election cycle that until recently was soft for cable news. With the ho-hum factor of an incumbent in President Obama, neither the Republican debates nor the primaries lived up to expectations. Griffin also blames a collective “Washington fatigue” that plagued networks for months. “As an election year, overall, it’s been a pretty disappointing season,” he says. “The hangover from the debt-ceiling debate that took place a year ago August really put a chill on things, and you can see it in the overall aggregate number of all cable news. Viewers saw an ugliness in that.”
While Romney-Paul Ryan supporters are buoying Fox News in the same way the John McCain–Sarah Palin ticket did in 2008, Obama-Joe Biden fans also seem to be helping more than just cable news pundits.
Comedy Central’s left-leaning The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report received their own convention boosts. Both series went dark during the week after the festivities in Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., but returned averaging 1.8 million and 1.4 million viewers, respectively, from Sept. 17 to 21. Their quarterly averages are up 24 percent and 23 percent, respectively, locking down some of the network’s strongest performances among adults 18 to 49 and its coveted male demo in the process.
Real Time With Bill Maher has rivaled even Stewart/Colbert numbers despite airing on pay cable. The HBO series has outpaced its 2008 pre-election ratings, with the Aug. 31 edition drawing its biggest tune-in since 2004 (1.4 million viewers for its first broadcast and 1.9 million including an encore that night). Real Time is averaging 4.1 million viewers an episode when combining linear TV, HBO On Demand, HBO Go and DVR plays. “It is not in the least bit surprising that a bigger audience wants to hear what he has to say during this election cycle,” says Michael Lombardo, president of programming at HBO.
It’s not just the overtly political hosts who are seeing benefits. CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman reached its highest overnight rating since early 2010 with a Sept. 18 visit from Obama in which the president responded to the Romney video. The lead-in gave a comparable two-year-best boost to Craig Ferguson‘s Late Late Show.
Others are recognizing the potential ratings boosts. No sooner had The View landed the president and first lady Michelle Obama for its Sept. 25 broadcast than Romney and wife Ann signed for a pre-election appearance — even though the GOP nominee deemed the ABC show “high risk” in the leaked video. NBC’s The Tonight Show also locked down Ann Romney after Mitt lamented Letterman’s supposed Obama preference in that same tape.
But this being an election year, there also must be losers. NBC aired the first of two Saturday Night Live Weekend Update Thursday specials Sept. 20 — but without Fey’s Palin or even Amy Poehler‘s Hillary Clinton, the show tanked, posting a 1.6 rating among adults 18 to 49, down 69 percent from the 5.1 rating drawn by the comparable 2008 special.
Jason Sudeikis‘ take on Romney apparently doesn’t hold quite the same Palin appeal.
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