One of the most disturbing media trends of the past two decades has been the continuous cutback in TV coverage of presidential politics.
Nowhere was this more apparent during the last two election cycles than in the networks' dearth of national convention coverage. The reason most often given by news executives: lack of viewer interest.
But this year, news outlets on the Internet and long-established cable TV channels have greatly expanded the amount of coverage, and viewers are responding in record numbers. And that, analysts say, is good news for the media and citizens.
"I guess I sit right there with your average viewer who is driving up the ratings, because I find myself watching more and more of the election coverage as the contests go on," says Lee Thornton, professor of broadcast news at the University of Maryland, College Park and former CBS News White House correspondent. "And when you look at the range of what's available, from the Internet, to CNN and Fox, as well as the networks, that has to be good news for viewers and, perhaps, the political process."
The big ratings news last week was that CNN's coverage of the Democratic candidates' prime-time debate on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was the most watched debate in cable news history, with 4.9 million viewers. The previous high in overall audience was notched by the CNN/YouTube Republican Debate on Nov. 28, with 4.3 million.
Indicative of the surge in interest this season: The five most-watched debates in cable TV history have come in the past five months -- three of them on CNN and two on Fox News. And in each case, nearly one-third of the audience comprised viewers between ages 18 and 49, the demographic most desired by programmers and advertisers. Traditionally, the audience for news skews much older.
"The empirical evidence of heightened viewer interest is there in the ratings," says Mark Feldstein, an associate professor of journalism at George Washington University and former ABC News correspondent. "And as more and more people tune in, the cable channels and networks devote more and more resources to covering the election. This is what we are seeing now."
While there is some chicken-and-egg debate among network executives and analysts about which came first -- more coverage or more interest -- there is no dispute that everyone in the cable TV world is expanding coverage as the ratings rise.
On Jan. 1, a huge college football bowl day, CNN introduced wall-to-wall coverage of the candidates in Iowa under the title Ballot Bowl. By Jan. 6, viewership was up by 34 percent over regular programming.
On Jan. 19, the evening of the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina GOP primary, Fox News Channel extended its political coverage late into the night after the other channels had returned to regular programming. It was typical of the extra effort that helped lead Fox News to a ratings victory on a competitive night.
Thursday, MSNBC brought on Brian Williams and Tim Russert, the big guns from corporate cousin NBC News, for the final GOP debate before the Florida primary -- another prime-time showdown.
"The rise in ratings bears directly on this pivotal moment in American history where you have a woman who could become president and you have a black man who could become president -- it's just absolutely fascinating to watch this scenario with all its drama," says Thornton.
"You have two rock stars in Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who get into throwing some mud from time to time -- and you have a former president [Bill Clinton] melting down," adds Feldstein. "And that's just the Democrats. On the other side, you have the death and rebirth of John McCain, which is a pretty good story in its own right."
Phil Seib, professor of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, acknowledges the star power of Clinton and Obama, but he also thinks viewers are paying more attention to the coverage because many are "so distressed about everything from the economy to Iraq."
Technology might be playing a role as well, according to Seib, who is spending more time online this season. In his case, it is with politico.com, the indispensable Washington-based Web site for the politically engaged.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, Seib finds that his Web browsing often drives him back to TV -- which offers another explanation for higher TV ratings, particularly for cable channels such as MSNBC and CNN that have two of the most heavily trafficked news sites on the Web.
"There's definitely a crossover with the television programming feeding the Web site, and the Web site feeding the television programming," Seib says.
In the end, the best news about the expansion of political coverage and increased interest from viewers might be the meaning that some top news executives are making of it: Responsible coverage of important issues can be profitable.
"These are serious times, and the three major cable channels have responded with serious coverage -- and people have responded to us," says Phil Griffin, senior vice president of NBC News in charge of MSNBC. "You see it on our channel with Keith Olbermann, where our numbers are way up, and you see it on Fox and CNN, where their numbers are also up."
Explaining the success of his channel's prime-time debates, Jon Klein, president of CNN, says, "Viewers are hungry for unfiltered information."
As for the success of shows like Ballot Bowl: "Journalism that plays it aggressively up the middle makes for good business," he says.
The newfound popularity of presidential politics is raising hopes for even more and better coverage this year.
"Maybe this is wishful thinking, but the current level of interest almost argues for the networks making a greater commitment this time around to the national conventions," says the University of Maryland's Thornton.
"The networks have pretty much just dissed them -- just threw a great deal of that coverage out in recent years. And I am hoping with this level of great interest, all viewers will get to see more of the candidates and the political process in coming months."
David Zurawik discusses the role of TV coverage in presidential politics at baltimoresun.com/zurawik