As GOP voting proceeds in Florida, Dan Rather and the world's media turn to Tampa Bay area
TAMPA -- Dan Rather leaned back in a chair at the Marriott Waterside Tuesday morning, already in a suit and ready to begin a day of analyzing Florida's GOP primary election returns for a host of media outlets and his own live show on HD Net.
"Florida, arguably, is the most important swing state in the country," said the former CBS News anchor, placing the Sunshine State on his short list of five most important states for the presidential election going forward. "And it's a true swing state -- which is to say, sometimes it goes Democratic, sometimes it goes Republican...It's hard to imagine a successful scenario for any candidate which doesn't go through Florida...(and) at this time -- underscore that, all caps -- I think Obama's a slight underdog to the Republicans."
Rather will repeat those observations for local and national TV news outlets over the course of the day, raising awareness for his work on upstart channel HD Net (soon to be rebranded AXS TV), while sharing experience covering elections reaching back to the days of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
And he's not alone. National news outlets have descended on the Tampa Bay area full force, with CNN cameras perched on a balcony at WFLA-Ch. 8's headquarters overlooking the Hillsborough River, while Fox News Channel anchor Brett Baier is expected to call election returns from Tampa.
The morning news shows featured a succession of Florida officials, from former Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to Adam Putnam, speaking for the Romney campaign. (experts must be in short supply; I've even gotten calls from the BBC, a Chicago radio station and U.S. reporters for Fuji TV in Japan.)
As many have said, Florida is the first primary which comes close to looking like the rest of the country, held in a sprawling state where person-to-person politics counts for much less and the deluge of TV ads funded by Romney and Gingrich count for much more.
According to Media Life magazine, Tampa area TV stations are expecting $40-million in political ad spending over the course of 2012, just in the presidential and U.S. Senate races. A large portion of that haul, $23-million, is expected in the fourth quarter close to the general election.
Small wonder WFLA brought back its 11 a.m. newscast in January, while WTSP-Ch. 10 added a half hour to its 9 a.m. newscast. Political advertisers prefer to slot their commercials in newscasts, when more potential voters are expected to be watching; expanding news hours gives more potential slots for political ads even as local reporters scramble to cover the campaigns as they touch down locally.
Most news outlets are planning live coverage of the returns in Florida, from the cable newschannels to NPR and even Current TV (curiously, that channel's Chief News Officer, Keith Olbermann, will not be anchoring; onetime CNN host Bill Press will lead election coverage instead, flanked by another ex-CNN-er, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.)
In Tampa, Rather sees an opportunity to present live programming on a channel currently under revamping by owner Mark Cuban. Over the summer, HD Net is expected to be rebranded as AXS TV, a home for concerts and live events in a partnership with American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, the talent agency representing Seacrest CAA and concert promoter A.E.G.
The 80-year-old anchor has always seemed an odd fit for a channel courting young men with programs featuring mixed martial arts fights and the Bikini Barbershop series. But Rather said Cuban is committed to his Dan Rather Reports program -- it helps in schmoozing cable systems to carry the channel -- while asking that he step up with more live events, including election coverage.
"We don't want to be live for live's sake -- we want to bring added value," said the anchor, who hosts a live broadcast from Tampa at 7 tonight featuring National Journal reporter, Matthew Cooper, GOP strategist Todd Harris, and Democratic strategist and former adviser to Hillary Clinton, Catherine "Kiki" McLean. "This has the potential to be a $3-billion election. We're going to ask who is paying all that money, and what they will expect for their money once the election is done."