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NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Now that the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have launched the presidential race, non-news networks are piling on to document an election season seen as just too entertaining to pass up.
While outlets such as MTV and Comedy Central have long been using campaigns for programming fodder, newcomers to the presidential race are hoping TV viewers will cast their ballots with them -- especially given that the writers strike has shut down most original TV programming.
"This election is gearing up to be perhaps the most interesting TV series of the season, and everyone technically has the rights to it," said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
Among the new entrants: the gay-themed Logo, women's cable channel WE tv, the Independent Film Channel (IFC), young men's channel Spike, and country music outlet CMT.
Logo entered the fray in August with a first-of-its-kind on-air forum on issues of importance to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community with Democratic presidential candidates including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and Bill Richardson.
WE tv has announced a national grassroots initiative aimed at registering more than 1 million women to vote while educating them on key issues. Kelly Ripa, LeAnn Rimes and Kerry Washington have signed on for the campaign.
Spike TV has launched a voter registration drive in partnership with Ultimate Fighting Championship that includes public service announcements with top UFC stars. CMT also will feature election-related issues content, though its plans are not yet nailed down.
IFC will keep it indie, with documentary-style reporting aimed at independent voters.
"We're trying to bring issues to bear and talk about things that most notably don't get covered in presidential election coverage because most of the networks seem most interested in pitting the extremes of the two sides against each other," said Evan Shapiro, the channel's executive vp and GM.
The cable networks declined comment on what they are spending on election initiatives, but IFC said it is making a "big investment," and MTV said its presidential dialogues -- while less costly than ABC or CNN debates -- were among the five most expensive specials produced by MTV News last year, including the Video Music Awards and the MTV Movie Awards.
MTV is making a big multimedia push this time around. It has recruited 51 young citizen journalists -- one from each state and Washington D.C. -- to present the issues that matter to young people through text, photos, video and audio.
"We will have more content partly because we're going to be soliciting a lot more from our audience, which we weren't doing at all in 2004," said Ian Rowe, vp public affairs at MTV. "Consumer-generated is definitely the innovation this year."
The network also has other election-related programming in development for 2008 such as TV series, longform documentaries and issue-based specials, Rowe said.
Comedy Central started the season off early with a pre-strike presidential bid by Stephen Colbert in his home state of South Carolina. While Colbert might have failed to get his name on the ballot, the two weeks of episodes focusing on his bid were the most watched in "Colbert" history with an average of 1.5 million viewers, a network spokesman said.
Comedy Central also has launched Indecision2008.com, which features daily campaign news and clips from "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." The network is doing two Indecision 2008 live tours and planning politically themed stand-up comedy and movies from the Comedy Central library.
Probably more than any other entertainment-driven cable network, Comedy Central has experienced firsthand the benefits of creating programming around a presidential campaign. Boasting ratings that are 10%-15% higher during election years, Comedy Central is selling sponsorship packages to advertisers that cover all the live, on-air and online elements of its campaign coverage.
Women's cable channel Lifetime has joined forces with Queen Latifah for an "Every Woman Counts" campaign. Interstitials with Latifah, Jodie Foster, Halle Berry and Mary J. Blige, election polls and plans for a town hall with the candidates are all part of the network's content.
"A lot of the issues women care about deeply are getting lost in a lot of the crossfire and the horse race of the media coverage," said Meredith Wagner, exec vp public affairs.
Lifetime plans to weave many of the election themes relevant to women into its programming and has a movie about an unnamed high-powered political woman in development for the fall.
Kids cable behemoth Nickelodeon is extending its Kids Pick the President initiative, holding its first kids' primary vote online the week after a primary news special that will air Sunday. BET is hosting interviews with Clinton, Obama and other presidential hopefuls in the first quarter.