Recall Race Becomes TV's Obsession

The California recall -- a combination of star vehicle, peep show and political game of chicken -- has gotten unprecedented national TV coverage for a statewide election, receiving more airtime on the Big Three networks than the White House race.

From Aug. 1 through Sept. 25, the nightly newscasts on NBC, ABC and CBS devoted a total of 127 minutes to the recall, said Andrew Tyndall, who monitors TV news for his Tyndall Report newsletter. In that same period, the Democratic presidential contenders received a total of 36 minutes.

That represents unprecedented national airtime for a statewide election, Tyndall said. In 2002, the networks gave all gubernatorial races nationwide a combined 40 minutes of attention for the year.

The world is watching, too, fascinated with Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger (search)'s metamorphosis from Hollywood action star to pol.

"It's all people wanted to talk about," said Joel Aberbach, a political science professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who found interest high during a recent European trip.

Other elements of the race are contributing to television's fascination, including the possibility that Gov. Gray Davis (search) could be only the second U.S. governor in more than 80 years to be recalled from office. The ballot also includes a made-for-TV cast of characters among the 135 replacement candidates, including Hustler publisher Larry Flynt (search), former child actor Gary Coleman and a porn star wants to tax breast implants.

"There's also a general fascination across the country and the world with California -- the culture, its strange ways and its position, in some sense, as the leading edge of change, for good or ill," Aberbach said.

TV host Chris Matthews has relentlessly tracked the recall campaign on his daily MSNBC show "Hardball" and on the syndicated "The Chris Matthews Show," even temporarily relocating from East Coast to West Coast.

Such coverage is necessary because of the national and worldwide interest, he said.

If Schwarzenegger wins the governorship on Oct. 7, "on Oct. 8 every newspaper -- in Santiago, in Rangoon, in Islamabad -- is going to have it as an item on the front page or in the front section," Matthews said.

ABC anchorman Peter Jennings, in introducing yet another recall story recently, said he was not sure "everybody in the country is quite as fascinated with what's going on in California in this recall election as we are."

They are, at least according to ratings for one key event.

When the only debate including Schwarzenegger was carried live on cable Sept. 24, the ratings shot up on Fox News and MSNBC. Fox saw an 88 percent increase for the 9-11 p.m. EDT block, compared with a year ago, while MSNBC had an 85 percent rise. CNN recorded a more modest increase, 14 percent.

In a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll conducted Sept. 19-21, respondents were asked if they were paying more attention to the 2004 presidential election or to the recall. The recall was cited by 44 percent, the national election by 37 percent, said CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

People are more attracted to a "circus than a seminar," Schneider said, contrasting the recall with the Democratic debates.

But also, "it's an intriguing notion that if a politician isn't doing his or her job, they can be fired long before they face voters for re-election," he said. "That's captured the public's attention."

The recall has even made it onto California's local TV news, which typically shows scant interest in politics. "You'd have to have a debate on the freeway with two cars chasing each other," Schneider said.

In a 1998 study, Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, found that TV stations in California's major media markets devoted a total of 37 hours over 11 weeks to the gubernatorial race in which Davis was first elected.

Kaplan has not compiled figures for the recall, but he speculated that it probably took "about 20 minutes" for the local stations to exceed their 1998 total.

Whether the extensive coverage is illuminating events or just wallowing in them is a matter of debate.

Television, the major source of news for most Americans, has not provided detailed reports on the origins of California's budget crisis and how candidates intend to respond, Aberbach and Kaplan said.

The coverage "has contributed shockingly little to advancing the debate about what they face in Sacramento," Aberbach said.