By Kevin McDonough
Was Super Tuesday always so super? Three major networks scramble their programming tonight to present results of multiple primaries. In addition to cable coverage like "America's Choice 2020: Super Tuesday" (7 p.m., CNN), ABC …
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Was Super Tuesday always so super? Three major networks scramble their programming tonight to present results of multiple primaries. In addition to cable coverage like "America's Choice 2020: Super Tuesday" (7 p.m., CNN), ABC devotes three solid hours to "Super Tuesday: Your Voice, Your Vote" (8 p.m.), as does NBC with "2020 Super Tuesday Coverage" (8 p.m., NBC), and CBS arrives an hour later with "CBS News Election Special - Super Tuesday: High Stakes" (9 p.m.).
Was this always the case? I reread old issues of this very column to discover that the answer is no. In 2012, when Republicans were searching for a candidate to challenge an incumbent Democrat, only NBC covered the results in prime time, and they didn't do that until 10 p.m. Looking back at my column for March 2, 2004, the date of Super Tuesday that year, indicates that no election coverage interrupted a diet of "American Idol," "Frasier," "Judging Amy," "Gilmore Girls" or "One Tree Hill." FYI: Sixteen years later, there is only one network series from that night still on the prime time schedule: "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
So what has changed? A fractured media has so lowered ratings expectations that the audience for "news" is actually healthier than most entertainment fare. CBS's recent coverage of a Democratic debate was watched by more than 15 million viewers. Last Tuesday's episode of "This Is Us," still considered a hit for NBC, attracted fewer than 7 million total viewers.
But even as network television lavishes more attention on politics, its impact on the proceedings may be on the wane. From the time a TV camera captured proceedings at the 1948 conventions to the election of a reality star president, television has dominated and defined politics. The mastery of television and TV ads are central to the understanding of the success of candidates, from Kennedy to Nixon and Reagan. By the 1990s, cable television created a niche for challengers. CNN commentator Pat Buchanan wounded incumbent President Bush in the 1992 primaries, and CNN's "Larry King Live" became a launching pad for Ross Perot, who went on to receive nearly 20% of the vote that year.
Now, time and money spent on television no longer guarantee success. The winner of the 2016 election used "free" media like Twitter to great effect, while being outspent on TV commercials.
Then there is the undeniable fact that television no longer sets the agenda for voters or viewers under 40 or even 50 years of age. Particularly those who feel the deck has been stacked against them.
As an advertising medium, TV is always going to be a cheerleader for retail spending and will take a dim view of any voter or candidate who argues that the economic system has failed to work for too many.
With the exception of "Roseanne," no drama or comedy eager for advertisers is going to dwell on hard times, unaffordable housing and health care or burdensome college debt. It's interesting, even symptomatic, that "Modern Family," the most popular comedy during the era of the 2008 recession and housing market collapse, was about the family of an effortlessly affluent Realtor with millionaire in-laws. It often seemed that Phil Dunphy's most difficult problem was he couldn't buy a new $1,000 iPhone fast enough.
So, in many ways, television and TV "news," aimed at an older audience with money to spend, might see dissent from the prevailing system as "revolutionary." And younger viewers for whom that system has not worked may see television news as out of touch.
History teaches us that those listening to the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate on radio thought that Nixon had won. They just didn't know that radio was no longer the relevant medium.
TONIGHT'S OTHER HIGHLIGHTS
• Nadine's dad visits on "The Resident" (8 p.m., Fox, TV-14).
• The Lyons are rocked by a sudden loss on "Empire" (9 p.m., Fox, TV-14).
TV on DVD
TV-themed DVDs available today include the complete series collection of "No Offence," seen on Acorn.
Andy's departure for college brings a change of venue for Woody, Buzz and the gang in the 2010 "Toy Story 3" (8 p.m., Starz Encore).
A terror plot looms on "NCIS" (8 p.m., CBS, r, TV-14) * Barry and Iris have a change of plans on "The Flash" (8 p.m., CW, r, TV-PG) * Fame is a two-edged sword on "DC's Legends of Tomorrow" (9 p.m., CW, r, TV-14).
Jimmy Fallon welcomes Kevin Bacon, Tan France and Taylor Tomlinson on "The Tonight Show" (11:35 p.m., NBC) * John Oliver, Elizabeth Debicki and Jenny Offill visit "Late Night With Seth Meyers" (12:35 a.m., NBC).
© 2020, United Feature Syndicate
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