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Politics: ratings death or ratings gold?


In writing a few years ago about the shrinking commitment of TV news to political coverage, I noted this prevalent belief in the broadcasting community:

"If we had five minutes of politics at six o'clock consistently for one year, our ratings would plummet and we'd go out of business," says a Providence TV reporter, who asked to not be identified. "A lot of people think this is boring. It wouldn't take too long before they're going to stop flipping on at six o'clock. People just aren't that interested, and there's no way we can make them interested."

Yet isn't the problem one of definition?

[Media activist Paul] Taylor notes that political campaigns are inherently important since they can have a direct bearing on the things -- health, wealth, security, environment, education, and so on -- that people care about. The dramatic elements of character and plot make campaigns compelling, and the audience gets to choose the ending. "Yet somehow when all of these elements are tossed into the broadcast-media blender, the whole concoction comes out as 'ratings poison,'" Taylor notes in outlining the Alliance for Better Campaign's pitch for free air time. "This is not merely a failure of politics; it is also a failure of journalism."

Now, as Variety reports, comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live are reaping some big bucks from their focus on politics:

"SNL" has experienced a hefty bump in the Nielsen polls this election season, boasting a 50% gain over last season’s first two episodes.

And it’s not the only beneficiary of this year’s bitterly waged presidential campaign. Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show" is coming off its most-watched week in history, averaging 1.9 million viewers last week — up 28% from last year.

Of course, last year, the world hadn’t yet heard of Sarah Palin, and both Barack Obama and John McCain were considered longshots for their respective party nominations.

A year later, the U.S. is in the midst of a presidential campaign that many have described as unusual and unexpected — in other words, perfect fodder for "SNL" and "The Daily Show," not to mention Comedy Central’s "The Colbert Report" and HBO’s "Real Time With Bill Maher."

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