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Dead Tree Alert: Why TV Still Matters in Politics

Election TV is much like the rest of TV today. On a day to day basis, it's less dominant. But a very few big events—whether a debate or a secretly-taped video—have a bigger reach and effect than ever.

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

This was supposed to be the year in which TV made all the difference in politics—specifically, hundreds of millions of bucks’ worth of TV ads dumped onto the air by virtually unlimited Super PAC spending. As the New York Times reports today, instead conservative anti-Obama donors, who made the vast majority of Super PAC donations, spent over $300 million on the presidential race alone, and didn’t even get a lousy T-shirt.

Still, one of the things we saw was that, in what was a markedly stable race overall, TV can still move the polls on a few important occasions. The most striking example this time out was the first Presidential debate: it didn’t win the election for Mitt Romney, but it did shift the polls sharply his way over a week and a half. In my column in TIME’s election issue, I look back at that debate, how it came across in the moment—and, at least as important, how it was amplified by the instant spin room of social media and the reactions of pundits in the weeks after.

But beyond the debate, the larger thing 2012 showed us is that election TV is much like the rest of TV today. On a day to day basis, it’s less dominant, because of audience fragmentation and the increasing importance of the Internet. But—for some of the same reasons—a very few live-TV events (or surprises like the 47% video) have a massive, multiplied reach and effect:

pundits and political scientists wondered whether debates really carried much weight anymore and whether TV in a fragmented media age was as relevant as it used to be. [It] turns out that TV debates are like all TV programs nowadays: they matter less, except when they matter more. In prime time, average audiences have gotten smaller—except for a few live-TV spectacles a year, like the Super Bowl and awards shows, whose audiences have grown bigger than ever, abetted by the instant watercooler of Twitter and Facebook.

So too with the campaign. Over a billion dollars’ worth of TV ads barely budged the polls, but a handful of TV events did: the first debate (with 28% more viewers than in 2008), the well-executed Democratic Convention (though not Clint Eastwood and his chair at the GOP confab), Romney’s leaked video disparaging “the 47%” on government assistance, and perhaps Hurricane Sandy, which not only gave Obama a bipartisan platform with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie but also provided a powerful, physical example of the President’s argument for the role of government: You didn’t rebuild that alone.

At least since the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, the effect of television has been a major consideration of campaigns. Now TV still matters, often a lot, but as part of a larger, omnipresent ecosystem of online video, non-news TV and tidbits shared and liked on Twitter and Facebook.