A recent post on MediaPost's TV Board blog suggests that television is becoming increasingly irrelevant in elections. In it, Gary Holmes points to the minimal impact of the two major party conventions on surveys of candidate preference and the large declines in audience size. While the decline in viewing isn't good, he turns to the demographic mix of convention coverage audiences for an explanation. On each convention's final night, more than half of the TV audience was aged 55 or older; and more critically, those 18-34 made up only 15% of Democratic primary viewers, and 11% of Republican primary viewers. News channels and shows skew older anyway, but not as extremely as live election event coverage seems to. TV news and political coverage of the conventions just don't seem to be reaching uncommitted or swing voters in the electorate.
Well, then, what about political advertising, slated to reach stratospheric levels this year? The trouble with having a lot of political advertising is that you have a lot of political advertising. TV stations and networks will be awash in multiple airings of attack ads - but ads, and particularly political ads, can quickly reach a saturation point beyond which they have little, if any, positive impact. (Personally, I identify most of them in the first few seconds and immediately change channels - particularly attack ads)
Anecdotal evidence from the last few weeks might even suggest a backlash. In the last few weeks, mainstream news media, television in particular, have trumpeted multiple claims that Romney "gaffes" have ended his campaign, a plethora of Obama campaign attack ads (labeled misleading and dishonest by fact-checkers) and additional buys for a PAC ad blasting Romney that even the Obama campaign said was dishonest and inappropriate. And the result of this avalanche of all this negativity from television on Romney's support and approval levels? National tracking polls show him picking up support from voters, to the point that he's come from several percentage points down, to being tied with (or slightly leading) Obama.
But the money's been raised, and will be spent. Attack ads will flourish and will likely to become really dirty and dishonest as the election nears (when the folks running campaigns calculate that it's too late for preposterous claims to be challenged effectively). But by then, one hopes, a lot of people will have already tuned them out - and perhaps even tuned out the channels, stations, and programs they appear on (I predict a big increase in delayed viewing, as DVR let you quickly skip the nastyness). And television, in terms of news coverage and live coverage of political events will become even less relevant.
I do think that TV could correct the trend if it wanted to - but when media think partisanship and conflict drives ratings and profits, it doesn't seem likely. So to the American electorate - let's make TV irrelevant in elections. Maybe then the TV's incentives will shift to providing objective reporting and analysis instead of the current incentives to uncritically repeat partisan talking points.
Source - Is Television Becoming Irrelevant to the Election?, TV Board, a MediaPost blog