ABC News is clearing its slate of prime-time entertainment shows tonight to make room for Charles Gibson, Diane Sawyer and live wall-to-wall political coverage.
On CBS, Katie Couric and newly hired political analysts such as Joe Trippi will supplant action-adventure drama, while NBC pre-empts one of its highest-rated series for Brian Williams and Tim Russert.
With 24 states up for grabs on Super Tuesday, the networks - bolstered by rising interest in the primaries - have suddenly become super-serious about covering presidential politics.
But instead of singing the praises of ABC, NBC and CBS News, analysts see their efforts tonight as being too little and too late amid a widespread change in viewing habits. Experts say that rather than being a moment of high civic responsibility and glory, tonight's coverage serves as yet another landmark moment in the erosion of the dominance once enjoyed by network TV.
Network news, which once owned the airwaves when it came to presidential politics, now finds itself scrambling to try and catch up to 24/7 cable TV and upstart Internet outlets. The latter have come to dominate coverage of one of the most important elections in American history - an election that the public cannot seem to get enough of.
"Look, these networks are in business to make money, so they are not giving this last-minute, wall-to-wall coverage on Super Tuesday because they suddenly got religion about the civic importance of covering a political campaign," says Mark Feldstein, a professor of journalism at George Washington University. "They're doing it because they think they're going to make money."
For all the star power of a Diane Sawyer or the flash of a new election-night set with blinking blue-and-red maps, viewers should not be fooled about the most authoritative source tonight for information on vote totals and analyses of what they mean, experts say.
"Cable news planted its flag with wall-to-wall coverage a long time ago, while the networks essentially punted on in-depth campaign coverage by nature of limiting it to their regular newscasts," says Feldstein, a two-time Peabody Award-winning network and cable correspondent. "So, it's fine that the networks are doing lots of coverage tonight, but I don't think you should lose sight of the commercial imperative that's causing it - or the way in which cable has taken the lead on this story."
While analysts agree on the dominance of cable, some say the networks' loss of power was inevitable with changing lifestyles and the rise of the Internet.
"I'm not so sure network news has dropped the ball," says Mike Socolow, a University of Maine journalism professor and former producer at CNN.
"More likely, the people most interested in politics are finding what they need on cable or the Internet. They don't need to wait around for the evening - or morning - network news shows to be updated. I think the networks are still committing substantial news coverage and resources to politics, it's just that the audience is so splintered today that the brand identities of ABC, CBS and NBC are no longer intertwined with news, politics and public service. People think of them now as almost exclusively purveyors of entertainment."
That's the case for Philip Seib, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, who says his focus this election year has shifted to Web sites like Politico.com.
"I am spending more and more time with my computer," Seib says. "It is hard to find anything on TV that can compare with the kind of analysis of vote totals offered at Politico.com."
However, Seib also acknowledges that his Web viewing regularly drives him back to TV, particularly cable channels like CNN and MSNBC that have popular Web sites.
"There's definitely a crossover between Web and TV," he says.
Phil Griffin, the NBC News executive in charge of MSNBC, also believes Web browsing and cable viewing are linked when it comes to politics these days: "Of course, the Web site and the channel help and complement each other," he says.
But that hardly explains the kind of record ratings being enjoyed by CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. A full explanation includes the challenging times in which the nation finds itself - as well as contested elections for both parties and the presence of the first woman and first African-American candidates who are serious contenders, according to Griffin. All have had a pronounced effect on focusing viewers' attention on politics.
"There are still these big network news shows like Today and Nightly News on NBC," Griffin says.
"But if you want your daily dose of information and in-depth coverage of something, you're going to go to a show like Hardball or Countdown on MSNBC - programs that will spend an hour in depth on the topic. I think that's what's driving the rise in ratings most of all. There's never been a political time like this in my lifetime, and people are looking for in-depth coverage - and that's what we're giving them on cable."
While Griffin acknowledges that cable does overcommit to superficial stories when the flow of news is light, that is not the situation these days.
"Do we often cover stories that can be classified as not the most important stuff when there is not a lot of news? Totally. But when there is news and it's important - and that's where we are right now - cable really serves its audience," he says.
Still, the networks will be doing their best tonight to amp up the coverage and win back some viewers - if not journalistic respect. And with 30 percent of the nation still not linked to cable, the networks are still the nation's primary delivery system.
"For all their hard work, some of the cable channels could finish behind the networks in viewers tonight, because there are still a lot of people who don't have cable," George Washington's Feldstein says. "Even dinosaurs continued to rule the Earth for a time after their peak."
ABC: Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos join Charles Gibson. Prime-time coverage starts at 8 p.m.
CBS: Katie Couric is joined by Jeff Greenfield and Bob Schieffer. Political consultant Joe Trippi and former White House communications director Nicolle Wallace offer analysis. Starts at 9 p.m.
NBC: Brian Williams anchors, with analysis by Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw. Starts at 10 p.m.
Fox: Karl Rove, former adviser to President Bush, joins the cable channel to offer analysis tonight. Evening coverage starts at 6 p.m. with Brit Hume.
CNN: Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper anchor. Featured reporters and analysts include John King, Gloria Borger, Carl Bernstein, Bill Schneider and Jeffrey Toobin. Evening coverage starts at 6. [DAVID ZURAWIK]