Networks try to out-tech each other on Election Night

by Rick Kushman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

3 November 2008


For anyone planning to watch election night TV coverage - and apparently, nearly everyone in America is - there are a couple things to know.

First, all those anchors and pundits, and all the tricks and technology? They have little to do with news reporting or democracy or, really, the election. They’re about ratings. Plus a bit of ego. Make that lots of ego.

Election night is the final act and big payoff for network news divisions and cable news channels, and the wins the newsfolk care most about are the ratings counts and the coolness factor. Every TV reporter working Tuesday would kill to be the next standout figure, a la Tim Russert and his white memo board.

As for ratings, they will surely be big. In 2004, 64 million people watched all the nets combined, according to The Nielsen Co., and that’s already been surpassed by the 70 million who watched the vice presidential debate.

Every major election- related moment, from the Democrats’ squabbling debates to “Saturday Night Live” skits, has drawn major league viewership. Even Barack Obama’s 30-minute commercial Wednesday night got 33.5 million viewers across all networks carrying it, Nielsen said.

For perspective, those are “American Idol” finale kind of numbers.

So the networks know there are big ratings and dollars at stake. People who follow these things, like John Rash, a senior vice president of the respected Campbell Mithun ad agency, or Andrew Tyndall, whose newsletters monitors TV news, say heightened viewer interest in political news is likely to continue past the elections.

But there will be nothing like the numbers they’ve seen this fall. So Tuesday night is the last big chance to hook viewers onto a news operation, whether it’s CBS, Fox News, MSNBC or the rest. The late Russert, with that memo board and honest enthusiasm about the 2000 vote counts, added to his reputation and to NBC’s ratings in the months that followed the election.

One thing all the news operations will do is have instant numbers. For one night, anyway, TV news will be just as fast or faster than any online outlet (and all will connect their reports to their Web sites).

But some of the Tuesday night action sounds like pure silliness. ABC plans to broadcast on three massive TVs, including one that’s 23 stories high, in New York’s Times Square. Fox News will counter with its iconic Astrovision screen across the street.

NBC says it’s “transforming” Rockefeller Plaza into Election Plaza by projecting a United States map on the ice rink there, then turning the states blue and red as results come in. (There’s no word how they’ll react if a skater falls on a blue state and gets a nosebleed.)

NBC also will raise McCain and Obama banners as states are called. The 16-story top will signify the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

It goes on. Even PBS is getting into the goofiness by encouraging viewers to “upload their Election Day voting experiences” to YouTube with “Video Your Vote.”

And CNN might be topping them all in the flashy-but-useless technology race. CNN proudly started this election year with what it called its Magic Wall, a large, touch-screen map for correspondent John King. Now, everyone’s got touch screens - prompting CNN senior vice president David Bohrman to brag to Daily Variety, “they’re chasing behind us getting walls.” Because that’s what a news exec is supposed to care about: a gadget.

In any case, CNN has stepped up the gadget arms race. It plans to bring representatives from the Obama and McCain camps and correspondents into its studio in three-dimensional holograms.

“Anchors will exhibit more natural conversations with newsmakers and CNN correspondents in the field by interacting in real time with their 3-D virtual images,” a CNN press statement says. Uh, right. What’s more natural than talking to a ghost figure?

On the other hand, if CNN uses them like its usual wall of talking heads, maybe the holograms will actually punch each other. Now that would be good TV.

//Mixed media