As a news outlet devoted to covering national politics, Politico has national ambitions. Back in September 2008, the outlet launched an elaborate beast called the Politico Network, a countrywide web of partnerships with newspapers and TV stations. The idea was to share news, revenues and glory.
Returns from the project haven’t lived up to the press release. “It’s still out there, but it never really took off,” says Jim VandeHei, Politico’s executive editor.
No matter: This year, a hassle-free national platform offered itself to Politico. Terry Murphy, the executive producer and vice president of programming at C-SPAN contacted VandeHei and asked if he’d like to simulcast the work of Politico TV on C-SPAN.
Absolutely! Says Murphy: “It was just a call that I made to Jim, and they said yes right away.”
The overture from C-SPAN was an homage to the occasional primary-night TV packages that Politico had been running on the Web and on News Channel 8, a local cable news operation under the same corporate roof. Murphy liked the product churned out by VandeHei, editor-in-chief John Harris, reporter Maggie Haberman and several other staffers. ”We had been seeing what they were doing,” says Murphy, who notes that there were two good things in the package: 1) “How low-tech it is.... It’s raw information, basically — that was appealing”; and 2) “How tied in they are. They’re on their BlackBerrys the whole night.”
That assessment squares with other opinions out there, including that of this blog. Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik went a touch overboard in his praise, comparing the experience to dying and going to TV heaven. That space is reserved for “Hogan’s Heroes” reruns.
To date, Politico TV and C-SPAN have teamed up on three big coverage nights: Super Tuesday, Mississippi/Alabama primaries and the Illinois primary. Both sides are happy with the results, though they’re measured anecdotally. Since C-SPAN doesn’t run ads, it doesn’t have Nielsen ratings. C-SPAN says it’s seeing a swell of comments on Twitter related to the simulcast.
Politico, likewise, will hardly scoff at the platformic upgrade. “It’s a total no-brainer because C-SPAN has fantastic national coverage. They’re hugely interested in the stuff we’re interested in,” says VandeHei. Politico is relying on the same metrics as C-SPAN to judge the audience. “Apparently people seem to be watching, judging from Twitter and e-mail,” says VandeHei. “People seem to be watching it from beginning to end, and I don’t think it’s just family members.”
At the moment there’s no paper to this partnership. The two parties are just simulcasting in mutual good faith. Nor is there a road map or an exclusivity agreement in the works. C-SPAN spokesman Howard Mortman reports that there are no discussions toward changing that footing. The cable channel’s long history of partnering with other outlets is unlikely to end because of its relationship with Politico, according to Murphy.
The partners have found quick commonality in un-commercialism. Politico TV runs without advertisements, and C-SPAN, a nonprofit public service channel birthed by the cable industry at large, rolls that way as well. Its revenue come from cable subscriber fees.
Politico, of course, can support this public service for only so long. At some point it’ll need to find a way to wring some money from the production. Says VandeHei: “All of us know there’s a big growing market for video content. We also know there’s no code on how to monetize it in a robustly profitable way.” And Politico hasn’t even reached the point of strategizing on the latter part.
Another challenge for Politico is to refrain from improving the product. Politico higher-ups are reportedly interviewing candidates for the position of Politico TV executive producer. Trouble brewing there: EPs exist to instruct talent on how to inflect, how to swivel in their chairs, how to get Jonathan Martin to ditch his just-came-from-the-gym look, and how to get everyone to polish their “tosses.” For this enterprise, professionalization equals extinction.
Throw too many gizmos into the production and you may turn off a guy like Trygve Meade, a 24-year-old law student at Southern Illinois University who caught one of the Politico productions on C-SPAN. “Being able to see Politico on live TV makes that whole world more accessible,” says Meade. On the night of the Illinois primary, Meade e-mailed some analysis of the Illinois primary to Politico and heard it featured on the broadcast. “It was really exciting, I have to say,” he recalls.