Ratings are up! Traffic is up! How media will miss this election

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As we approach the presidential election next Tuesday, public interest in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — and subsequently news coverage of the two candidates as well as advertising rates — is at an all-time high for most media companies.

But though the 2016 election has led to record-breaking viewership and traffic numbers for most media companies, that gravy train won't last. Experts are skeptical that people are permanently interested in politics.

"The two bases are very angst-ridden and emotional about this election and these issues," said Lenny Stern, founding partner of agency SS+K, which is working with a Super PAC that is working with female candidates. "Twenty to 30 percent on each side are still going to be at it hard after the election. I think that big moveable middle — which is what most Americans are — need a vacation."

The top news websites saw a 13 percent increase in traffic this September compared to the year prior, according to Adobe Analytics. Compared to September 2012, the sites saw a 59 percent lift in traffic, Adobe said. The Washington Post's website in particular had its highest trafficked month ever in October, with 66.9 million visitors, according to ComScore. It also recorded 770 million page views, a 95 percent increase year over year.

And, it's not just websites that are benefiting. In October, Fox News led the three major cable news networks with an audience of 3.1 million during prime time according to Nielsen, a 72 percent increase from last year. October was CNN's most watched month since 2008 in total daytime programming among adults 25 to 54. CNN also finished first among the advertiser-coveted adults 25-54 demographic, up 131 percent since last October.

Higher-than-usual numbers for news media are expected for election years, said Merrill Brown, director of the Montclair State University School of Communication and Media. The 2000 and 2008 elections especially saw ratings bumps, though not quite as high as this year.

"You've have two compelling characters worth watching," said John Harrison, global media and entertainment leader at Ernst & Young. "You've got this really steady flow of incremental dramatic stories coming out around them that are creating this spotlight and drama that is building towards a deadline."

However, after the election, ratings should normalize with other programming like the NFL and other sports events seeing viewership increase, Harrison said. Advertising rates should drop accordingly for news media, as viewers turn to their regularly scheduled programming.

For major media companies, staff levels should remain relatively normal, Brown said. However, smaller digital media sites that staffed up to cover new political coverage areas may be in more trouble, especially because many of these companies are already reconsidering their cost structures and head counts in light of lower advertiser interest, Harrison said.

Digital advertising is also in a transition phase, since there is an excessive amount of advertising inventory online and more advertisers are opting to buy programmatically (or automated), Brown pointed out. In general, it's already meant less advertising revenue for media companies.

"Advertising is not flowing to those sites as much as they thought," Harrison added.

This will ultimately wind down quite abruptly, and then the media will be forced to cover things like they were before the election, like the Kardashians.
Mark Kaminsky
partner, SS+K

In addition, media companies that spent their efforts becoming known as a hub for political coverage may find themselves in trouble post-election if they don't have a strategy to cover other topics, Brown said. Fox and MSNBC which have been focusing less on programming and more on news coverage may be in danger, he noted, while CNN's emphasis on creating other kinds of shows and documentaries may put it in a better position for 2017.

But there's also more news topics to cover besides Trump and Clinton, Brown said. Trump's popularity shows that there is a growing frustration among the poor and middle class, who feel that their issues and concerns are not being reflected in politics and the media.

"It's our job to understand the frustrations that the middle class and the poor face, and realize they have had limited options to discuss policy that affects them," Brown said. "We're coming out of this election with real class issues, and the media has acknowledged that they haven't fully grasped that in the past with some focus."

However, whether people are willing to pay attention post-Election Day remains to be seen. Not everyone is convinced people's attitudes toward politics have changed.

"This will ultimately wind down quite abruptly, and then the media will be forced to cover things like they were before the election, like the Kardashians," said Mark Kaminsky, partner at SS+K.

UPDATED: This story was updated to include data from Adobe Analytics.