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Trudge to Voting Day Hasn't Dulled Hype

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. By the end of this morning, polling places will open from Massachusetts to California. By the end of the night, we may be closer to knowing the names of the presidential nominees. Never have so many states held primaries or caucuses on the same day.

INSKEEP: In keeping with NPR tradition, we'll bring you a little less campaign news during this voting day. We leave you extra space to think about your vote.

MONTAGNE: Of course, we will have special coverage when the polls close, and we won't be alone. TV news channels love this story, or rather this reality program. NPR's David Folkenflik reports on Survivor: The Super Tuesday Edition.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Cue the heraldic music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THEME FROM ABC NEWS")

FOLKENFLIK: Dust off the superlatives. Television news executives like David Chalian don't mince words in describing this political season.

MONTAGNE: A once-in-a-lifetime election.

FOLKENFLIK: Chalian is the political director for ABC News, and you can practically hear the man licking his lips in all his analytic glee.

MONTAGNE: This is unprecedented. We have never seen this kind of appetite from all the shows, from the viewers. We've never seen this level of interest in the nomination season.

FOLKENFLIK: ABC News drew more than 9 million viewers for a Democratic debate a few days before the New Hampshire primary, and 7 million for the Republican debate. And that was on a Saturday when there was football.

MONTAGNE: You know, we all thought maybe that the compressed calendar in all these early states were going to produce two nominees really quickly, and we were going have this long general election. That clearly has not happened. And so there's also just a great dramatic narrative.

FOLKENFLIK: It's a wide-open race, with no president or vice president in the hunt. People are uneasy about the economy and unhappy with the war in Iraq. And CNN president Jon Klein says they're eager to see what comes next.

MONTAGNE: Well, we've had one, two - I'm counting off of this list here - four of the top five primary debates in cable news history were this year. Every time we're rolling out a debate on CNN, it's attracting record levels of viewership.

FOLKENFLIK: Klein said something dawned on him all the way back last June, when CNN got ridiculously strong ratings for a debate months before the New Hampshire primary.

MONTAGNE: Which was, boy, what is a debate? It's the candidates talking, and it's not analysts or pundits talking. And maybe there's a hunger out there among the audience to hear what the candidates actually have to say about the real issues.

FOLKENFLIK: And Klein says that's shaped the channel's coverage ever since.

MONTAGNE: The marching orders are less you, more them. That's what we say to our correspondents.

FOLKENFLIK: The other cable news channels can make their own boasts. Fox News's ratings propelled it to the fourth-highest ranked cable station in prime time for January. It's typically sixth or seventh. The less highly rated MSNBC more than doubled its January audience compared to levels four years ago. Chuck Todd is political director for NBC News, including MSNBC.

MONTAGNE: These politics nights have been good ratings for everybody, and that says something.

FOLKENFLIK: Todd says he hopes to push so many stories on NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams that one day the half-hour newscast will be exclusively politics.

MONTAGNE: We're going to cover a great news story, and I think that this an incredibly important news story. It's fascinating at the same time. It's like if the Super Bowl really mattered to people's lives, that's what this presidential election is.

FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear our special coverage of Super Tuesday tonight on many NPR stations and at npr.org, where we'll also be blogging and providing real-time results. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.