Could the big winner on Election Day be Knight Rider?
With the race for the Oval Office considered the most exciting and dramatic narrative this fall, struggling broadcast TV shows might get some ratings relief once election fever subsides.
Cable news networks have seen their ratings soar in recent months -- for October, CNN was up 241 percent compared with last year in its key demo. Meanwhile, political Web sites are reporting record traffic, up triple digits from last year.
For viewers avidly tracking the latest poll results from North Carolina on RealClearPolitics.com or the newest stump speech on CNN, they will have to find something new to occupy their time.
Katz Television Group's Bill Carroll noted that when such disasters as Hurricane Katrina or Sept. 11 spike the cable news networks for days on end, once audience interest passes, the overall ratings distribution tends to return to normal.
"If we look at this current climate, it's so obvious that there is more interest in the election than there's ever been," Carroll said. "Once we get behind a major news event, we seem to go back to broadcast television, and I have no reason to think that won't happen this time."
Ratings for the broadcast networks have been down dramatically this fall, with fingers pointing to a slew of different causes. But the presidential election could be a conveniently transitory factor, though how much any show might benefit from its passing is debatable.
TV historian Tim Brooks agreed that post-election primetime ratings for the broadcast networks could rise, though he believes newer series will have a better shot at seeing a boost than the returning fall shows.
"There is definitely political overload because of the long campaign, and viewers will be looking for something else," Brooks said. "In the past, that's meant not simply a 'lifting of all entertainment boats,' however, but a golden opportunity for something new and fresh to grab the public's attention."
Brooks noted the second cycle of Survivor went through the roof when it premiered a few months after the 2000 election.
"I definitely think new shows will have some benefit, and the race ending will free up some eyeballs," one network executive said. "They don't carry the baggage that some of the slow-starting shows from this fall carry."
The executive also emphasized that he wouldn't blame the election for some new shows doing poorly this fall. Chances are, shows that perform weak in the ratings will continue to struggle, but popular shows could regain some lost momentum.
That could spell good news for the return of Fox's 24, which almost qualifies as a new series after a two-year hiatus. The real-time drama is unofficially kicking off its seventh season with a two-hour movie airing Nov. 23, less than three weeks after the election.
In a story on election addiction last week, Entertainment Weekly interviewed a doctor who noted that political junkies can expect a period of depression after Tuesday. "You'll wonder how you'll fill the vacuum," the doctor said.
Broadcasters, surely, have some suggestions.