Campaign '08: The Hottest Show on TV

Face it: Compared with the political drama on the tube, the Web's a mere utility

The significance of certain spectacles has withered with age: the Miss America pageant; the Stanley Cup; the Tony Awards. The Presidential election is not among them.

Surely I'm not the first to think that Election '08 (including its endless qualifying rounds and pregame shows) should sweep all awards for best dramatic series.

There's dynasty, gender, race, and war. A prominent spouse has a well-documented wandering eye. The fresh-faced are butting heads with establishmentarians. The basic setup aims straight for the viscera: wrest power from your foe and spend however many hundreds of millions of dollars it takes. It's event TV, like the Oscars or the Olympics. But better! Or at least much longer! Mitt Romney's ads were all over the airwaves beginning in February, 2007—and they still trailed those of GOP asterisk Duncan Hunter by two months.

WHERE THE BUCKS AREN'T

But let's pause on the "event TV" part, because to a huge degree the campaign is still made for television. Or at least for traditional media. (Even endorsements from the dullest local papers still matter. Not because they sway voters; rather, they're part of the story line. The media maw chews and digests them along with everything else.)

Yes, every campaign assiduously courts its crowd online and fund-raises there like nobody's business. Yes, we remember the YouTube (GOOG) debates, in which people asked candidates questions via videos submitted on that site. (Even if some induced cringes.) And yes, all manner of Web-only operations, among them politico.com and talkingpointsmemo.com, are worthy destinations where news is broken and diverse data brought together.

But as spending patterns attest, campaigns are more apt at using the Web as a utility than as a medium. As of mid-February, candidates and political groups spent $180 million on broadcast TV and were projected to spend at least $30 million on local and national cable, according to ad tracker TNS Media Intelligence (TNS). The corresponding figure for the Web? Around $4 million. (Tellingly, the candidate who's consistently spent the most on TV ads is...Senator Barack Obama, who leans hard on a prior generation's medium to get a next-generation message across.)

Current dynamics of political advertising place a premium on pounding the undecided with ads. Political pros, all of whom were weaned on TV, rightly or wrongly say the Web is much better for reaching the decided voter than the uncertain one. There is also an arms race with TV. Consultants are convinced that every spot you don't buy leaves virgin territory for the other team to colonize. Thus your ads keep the opponents' messages off the air as much as they keep yours on. A wry Steve Murphy, a senior adviser for Governor Bill Richardson's campaign, calls this "mutually assured destruction"—of budgets, at least. Murphy also recalled considering certain online ads only to find that targeting specific voter types meant those ads' cost-per-impression were "enormous" and simply "too expensive" for a more modest budget. (That sound you hear is a thousand TV executives rejoicing.) A campaign is an unusually centralized-command form of marketing, one that's positively martial in its obsession with staying on message. Web proponents—I'm one—may hear a symphony in the noisy din of online voices, but the inevitable discordant notes in that environment freak out handlers.

But that just explains how the ad dollars flow. There are also more prosaic factors at play between the Web and TV. Just because you can watch the entire campaign and then some online—I should know, because I'm more or less doing this—doesn't mean the Web is driving the narrative. There has not been a major Drudge-driven brouhaha that's gained traction yet this election, if I may pinch an observation from Time.com's Ana Marie Cox. (Possible, if marginal, exception: John Edwards' penchant for pricey haircuts.) Meanwhile, although chatter and ratings demonstrate that this campaign is a commercial as well as a critical success on TV, the campaigns of 1988 and 1996 show that it's not always this way. The impact, and the audience, of that quadrennial series called The Presidential Campaign depends largely on good casting. Just as it does in that other great media tradition—the one we call American Idol.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

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