In the corridors of NBC News’ New York headquarters last night, a phalanx of producers, camera operators, stage managers and publicists no doubt thought they were bearing witness to a last burst of heightened activity: the final hours of an Election Night broadcast led by Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd and Tom Brokaw.
Holding forth in a small, glass-enclosed set, the four anchors guided viewers through an event few saw coming, the election of Republican candidate Donald Trump to the White House. On a different floor, in a cramped studio, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC Andrew Lack, and Deborah Turness, president of NBC News, sat side by side surrounded by three handfuls of harried producers scrambling to keep the information flow steady. With few commercial breaks, the anchors had little time to dash off set. When Holt did for a few moments, he rushed back and jumped a stanchion bounding the set so he could get back to his seat before the camera flickered back to life.
The attention and pressure surrounding a presidential election only come once every four years. But this turn of events is so surprising and unprecedented that many TV-news executives believe the public’s attention may stay at or near the same intensity level at which it has buzzed for the past several months.
“We are in the biggest bull market in cable-news history,” said Bill Hemmer, the veteran Fox News anchor who previously spent a decade at CNN. “Conventional wisdom would suggest that everyone goes back to their lives on Wednesday, and I can’t see that happening.” Little wonder, then, that Fox News in the last few days unveiled a new TV studio valued at around $30 million.
To be sure, Hemmer’s sentiment runs against the tide. Viewership often declines in the year after a presidential election. In 2013, for example, the year after the networks chronicled the battle for the White House between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the combined median prime-time viewership of CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC dropped 11% to about 3 million, according to data from Pew Research Center. Already, 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch has prepped investors to expect a return to the norm. “Obviously, we expect the ratings and stuff like that to sort of come off after the election – that usually happens and then comes back,” the executive said during a recent conference call.
And yet, among top executives in TV newsrooms and those who work in the trenches, there is a palpable sense viewers may tune in for more. Yes, ratings are likely to fall – but perhaps not as much as they normally do after an election cycle. “I would expect us to have a much larger audience than we came into this with,” said Janelle Rodriguez, senior vice president of editorial at NBC News, who supervises MSNBC’s daytime schedule and “NBC Nightly News.”
There’s reason to want the fascination with the headlines to continue. At both 21st Century Fox and Time Warner, Fox News Channel and CNN have been integral to increases in revenue and operating income this year. The election cycle is expected to boost CNN’s overall ad sales by 14.4% in 2016, according to market-research firm SNL Kagan, compared with 11.2% in 2015. Fox News Channel’s ad revenue is projected to rise 9.8% this year, compared with 7.3% in 2015. And MSNBC’s ad revenue is expected to grow 26.4%, Kagan said, compared with just 5.6% the year before.
Ad dollars are also soaring at the broadcast-TV networks’ evening-news programs. In the first six months of 2016, advertisers earmarked nearly $290 million for NBC’s “NBC Nightly News,” ABC’s “World News Tonight” and CBS’ “CBS Evening News,” according to data from Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. Compare that with the $193.4 million spent on the shows in the first six months of last year – or even the $243.9 million spent during the 2012 White House race. The figures mean Lester Holt, David Muir and Scott Pelley won their shows almost 50% more in the first half of this year compared with the same 2015 period, and about 19% more than the first half of 2012.
The swell is due in no small part to a historic shift of presidential power – and an uncertain aftermath. Viewers couldn’t get enough of the spectacle of Donald Trump grappling with Hillary Clinton. Their interest was heightened enough to support on many nights multiple CNN hours of Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, instead of the one each primetime host is normally allotted; a new 11 p.m. MSNBC show led by Brian Williams; and a glut of debates, town halls, and in-depth conversations with candidates and their families. Even phone conversations with candidates, normally a non-starter for a medium that depends on live action, proved an attraction.
All the TV-news outlets need to keep audiences, and lure new crowds. CBS wants viewers to buoy its CBSN broadband news stream as well as “CBS This Morning,” a morning-news show that has seen viewership rise noticeably since launching in 2012. ABC and NBC are locked in a two-front battle for dominance in both mornings and evenings. Fox News Channel may be in an intriguing position, as it appears to be the news outlet with which the President-elect is most comfortable. The attention paid to CNN’s cable network is substantial, but it also obscures a broadening corporate emphasis on its digital properties.
One TV-news producer thinks aficionados are ready to jump back into a regular viewing habit after getting a little frustrated by the combative tone of the most recent campaign. “I think it’s going to take a couple of weeks or so for people to reclaim their viewing habits,” said Ryan Kadro, executive producer of “CBS This Morning.” “We picked up quite a bit of sampling” during the campaign, “and we expect to make some significant gains in the months ahead.”
TV news also has new competitors. BuzzFeed and Twitter last night set up a streaming-video election night counterpart to the TV-network broadcasts. Facebook has been the venue in recent days to see a nascent live video feed from Trump supporters. A 2016 study conducted by Pew Research found 38% of U.S. adults often get news from digital sources. That figure, Pew found, is below the 57% who often get news from a television source but is certainly more than the 25% who use radio or the 20% who use print newspapers.
There are compelling stories to tell. A Trump victory means “we will go into a transition phase that will be wild,” said Christopher Isham, CBS News’ Washington Bureau Chief. People will want to “watch how his notion of leadership, which I think is rather rudimentary, will work within the confines or the limits of executive authority in this country.”
The anchors holding forth last night at NBC News – and every other news outlet – may have thought they might be able to get some rest. But the seismic events of the last few days demand more coverage, not less – and so too do the shifting economics of the business. No one can afford to let up, said Tom Cibrowski, senior vice president of ABC News programs, newsgathering and special events. “We are not taking off the seat belts yet.”