Still from TV ads for Sens. and campaign rivals Barack Obama and John McCain
Still from TV ads for Sens. and campaign rivals Barack Obama and John McCain - 
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Kai Ryssdal:
Tens of millions of people are going to tune in tonight to watch the end of what feels like the longest political contest ever.
The campaign, though, has been a bonanza for the networks -- cable and otherwise.
Record ad spending. Record ratings. But now that the party's over, television could be in for one heck of a hangover.
Marketplace's Stacey Vanek-Smith reports.

Stacey Vanek-Smith:
The presidential election has been a giant ATM machine for TV networks. There was all the ad money from the extra-long Democratic primary and the extra-contentious presidential campaign.

Tape of TV Ads: What's happened to John McCain? Barack Obama and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers.

Evan Tracey is with The Campaign Media Analysis Group. He says the election has been worth about $2.5 billion in TV ads alone.

Evan Tracey: It's probably the closest thing to a stimulus package the broadcasters can expect to get this year. And it's been a TV-driven election.

It's also been a ratings gold mine. Nearly 70 million people watched Sarah Palin debate Joe Biden. Obama's acceptance speech in Denver drew a bigger audience than the American Idol finale. Rick Edmonds is a media analyst with the Poynter Institute

Rick Edmonds: Cable networks do well when they can ride a big story for a long time, and they don't come a lot bigger than this.

Prime-time viewership for MSNBC is up more than 80 percent this year. At CNN, it's up more than 165 percent. So what happens when the election's finally over? Media Economist Jack Myers says the networks will try hard to hang onto new viewers, but it won't be easy.

Jack Myers: Whether audiences will stay tuned to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News post election, I think that's the biggest unknown.

Myers says viewers may stick around for a while to see what the new administration does. After that, the networks might have to hope for a little news West-coast style:

Tape from entertainment newscast: Britney goes ballistic.

In Los Angeles, I'm Stacey Vanek-Smith for Marketplace.

Follow Stacey Vanek Smith at @svaneksmith