While the three outlets have tried at times to turn the campaign into an O.J.-style circus, voters are by and large better informed and certainly more entertained than ever before. As the focus shifts to the general election, which cablecasters are gaining among voters and which are loosing ground?
The big winners:
Rachel Maddow - The liberal Air America radio host, a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in political science, she has captivated the mainstream with calm, considered contributions to MSNBC. Often pitted against conservative Pat Buchanan in the most engaging confrontations since Shana Alexander and Jack Kilpatrick popularized the form on "60 Minutes" in the 70's, Maddow instinctively knows when to push a point and when to laugh one off.
Chuck Todd - After 15 years with the National Journal, he emerged as NBC's "numbers" guru at a time when delegate counts and polling conflicts left most viewers - and many cable commentators - fully flummoxed. Todd's ability to do the math is most impressive when contrasted with the weak effort by CNN's John King, whose high-tech, low-info video screen is as awkward as his analysis.
Roland Martin - Other than Hillary Clinton, no one profited more from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright flap than Martin, CNN's contributing expert on religion and race. While untangling the Wright story, Martin emerged as one of CNN's sharpest pundits.
Chris Matthews - After weathering a few stormy moments early in the campaign, Matthews rallied to make MSNBC's "Hardball" the best political hour on television. It's a good thing Matthews has plenty to say, since he often competes with his guests to wedge in words.
Bill O'Reilly - It would be easy to dismiss O'Reilly based upon the Fox network's conservative orientation and his own relentless self-promotion. But the fact is O'Reilly conducted enlightening interviews of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. His full hour in January about politics on talk radio was remarkably reasonable, including his complaint about "personal attacks" on Clinton by right-wing hosts.
The biggest losers in the cable campaign:
Keith Olbermann - Trapped between inclinations to practice serious journalism or be cable's class clown, he too often opts for the latter. Olbermann's biggest sin is to squander precious time night after night on his MSNBC program for what has become a tedious personal vendetta against Bill O'Reilly. Olbermann's viewers probably don't even watch O'Reilly; Olbermann, on the hand, never seems to miss a minute.
Wolf Blitzer - The '08 campaign appears to have left him exhausted. Forced to stand for hours on a dysfunctional CNN set - with more screens in view than at Circuit City - Blitzer too often seems out of breath, and out of his depth.
Andrea Mitchell - Like Blitzer, the veteran NBC correspondent has suffered from the load heaped upon her, covering the campaign in the field and also anchoring hourlong studio blocks on MSNBC. But she was at her insightful best during coverage of Tim Russert's death.
Larry King - CNN should change the name "Larry King Live" to "Larry King Asleep."
Karl Rove and Lanny Davis - Even those Fox viewers who agree with the conservative killer shark must find Rove's disingenuous "advice" to Democrats hard to swallow. And even Hillary Clinton's diehard supporters probably winced as Davis relentlessly flogged her positions on CNN. Booted for the general election, Davis is now on Fox.
Best Laugh - Much was made of Hillary Clinton's cackle, but Norah O'Donnell has an even more distinctive laugh, often heard off-camera during MSNBC's election coverage.
Worst Outfits - Tucker Carlson's seriously mismatched jackets, shirts and bow ties.
Most Nostalgic - Pat Buchanan wears the same big knot in his tie and has the same bad makeup job as his former boss, Dick Nixon.
Worst Question - George Stephanopoulos to Barack Obama: "Do you think Rev. Wright loves America as much as you do?"
Most Lives - Fox's Greta Van Susteren and MSNBC's Dan Abrams, who parlayed courtroom roles during the O.J. trial into anchoring their own shows.
Worst Demographics - CNN's 74-year-old Larry King interviewing 71-year-old John McCain.
Best Confession - CNN's Candy Crowley telling a college audience about her struggles on the campaign trail: "I was so sleep deprived once that I found myself brushing my teeth with moisturizer."
It's hard to imagine what these cablecasters will find to chatter about after November. But in cable's world, "The Road to 2012" is just over the video horizon.
© Peter Funt. Originally published in The Monterey County Herald.