Months of hard-fought competition, and they all come down to one Tuesday night. This wasn't only the final exam for Barack Obama and John McCain, but also for the 24-hour cable news networks that have exhaustively covered their battle for the White House. This Presidential cycle has garnered such interest that all of the networks have made audience gains as a result. Fox News continues to lead, but CNN, the self-appointed Best Political Team on Television, made huge audience inroads, as did MSNBC. Everyone expects the gravy train to end once the election is over, but whichever news team delivers the most accurate, most compelling election night coverage stands the best chance of retaining its gains going into the new year.
I flipped furiously between the three cable news nets and gauged their performances in two areas, the technology and the personalities. (Article continued below...)
CNN has the perception of being the most technologically advanced of the cable nets, thanks to the "Magic Map," the multi-touch electoral map display John King wields with brio. The next-gen successor to Tim Russert's dry-erase board, King's Magic Map has earned CNN a following, and they've been none too shy about featuring it in promos for their election night coverage. The Map played a big role in CNN's coverage, but they couldn't resist pulling out another fancy technique. Rather than relying on video stand-ups from its correspondents in the field, CNN used a technology that enabled them to broadcast three-dimensional holograms in the studio. And they had a blue tint to them, not unlike in "Star Wars." "I feel like Princess Leia!" said Jessica Yellin. It was a cheesy, gratuitous technique, but it did little to dampen the production overall.
But neither Fox nor MSNBC were prepared to cede the technology advantage to CNN without a fight. Fox has a Magic Map of its own—called the Billboard—though its interface is a bit sluggish, and its operator Bill Hemmer lacks King's enthusiasm for its ability to display granular county detail. His colleague Megyn Kelly seemed to have more fun with "The Launch Pad," a 10-foot touch screen splashed with live shots and statistics that Kelly could illustrate her points with. "Isn't this amazing? Who else has this?" a tickled Kelly told Brit Hume.
MSNBC has an interactive map, but its operator, Chuck Todd, tends to rely more on his intimate knowledge of electoral trends to lead viewers through the particulars. He was as thoughtful and erudite as he always is, but instead of a physical set, Todd spoke in front of a green screen on which a computer generated backdrop that made it appear as though he'd set up shop in the Parthenon. It looked silly enough on its own, but when split-screened with MSNBC's anchor team which was on an actual wood-and-nails set, the contrast did Todd no favors.
What audience trends in the cycle showed us is that audiences weren't interested in traditional evening news setups—one or two familiar faces delivering the news all night. Less isn't more; more is more. More anchors, more analysts, more opinions, more voices, and all three cable nets delivered.
MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann teamed up to flank anchor David Gregory, along with the network's new It Pundit, Rachel Maddow, plus Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post. Wolf Blitzer headed CNN's coverage as usual, with Campbell Brown, Anderson Cooper and Lou Dobbs wrangling a phalanx of analysts. Hume held court at Fox News with Karl Rove, along with Hemmer and Kelly and their respective doodads and a rotating cast of pundits.
From the assorted bits I saw, the CNN team won the night easily with the most watchable team. What makes CNN's coverage such a delight is that there are so many people on the stage at any given time (David Gergen, Jeffrey Toobin, Gloria Borger, et al), all of them knowledgeable, but also chatty. Watching CNN's coverage is like being at a classy election party with smart folks. All that was missing was a few bottles of white. MSNBC didn't trail too badly in this area. Matthews and Olbermann had a chemistry that belied their much-publicized ego wrestling, and Maddow continued to cement her reputation as the cable news personality everyone can agree on. Another secret weapon: Robinson, whose emotional testimony to the historical significance of the night was personal, and genuinely moving.
Fox's coverage was a little dull. Hume appeared to have fun, as he typically does, but the rest of Fox's team—its analysts in particular—was funereal in comparison to the personalities on other networks. There was nothing exciting or approachable about its coverage, and they spoke to each other almost exclusively, very seldomly turning to speak with the viewer. It was like the opposite of the CNN tone, more like a party of people who are smarter than you, go to great pains to show it, and also hate you.