Operating Systems


Election Night TV 2008: Technology for Technology’s Sake

CNN reporter Jessica Yellin has probably heard a lot of compliments during her career, which has included stints at ABC and MSNBC. But I’m guessing anchor Wolf Blitzer’s closing comment to her following her live report from Chicago early Tuesday evening was a new one for her.

“Alright Jessica, you’re a terrific hologram,” Blitzer told Yellin, as her image, “Star Wars”-like, appeared in front of Blitzer right there in the Time Warner studios in New York. Thanks to 30-plus HD cameras shooting every conceivable angle of her in a tent in Grant Park, it looked like she and Blitzer were in the same studio — if not for the hazy outline around her, placed on purpose by CNN to enhance the cheesiness of the effect.

Before that, Yellin had actually said, “I follow in the tradition of Princess Leia,” thereby launching a pre-emptive strike against amateur YouTube satirists. (With all the speed of the Millennium Falcon making the Kessel Run, Slate.com quickly debuted its mashup of the segment complete with dubbed “Star Wars” dialogue and footage.)

Really Big Show

CNN’s holograms, of course, have everything to do with the country’s most important exercise in democracy, helped illustrate the palpable excitement in America as it elected its first black president, and brought the cable network that helped launch a new chapter in television journalism that much closer to its audience


Let’s stretch the “Star Wars” metaphor to the snapping point, shall we? All I could think of when I saw the gratuitous techno-porn on display on CNN and most of the other networks Tuesday night was the fish-like Admiral Ackbar from “Return of the Jedi” bellowing, “It’s a trap!” CNN wanted the media world to hum loudly with its PR stunt, and nearly everyone bit, including Jay Leno and your humble Jedi wanna-be columnist.

Which doesn’t mean that I’m not sensing a disturbance in the farce that cable news has become in 2008.

Voting for Technology Over Substance

CNN’s ratings were through the Time Warner Center roof Tuesday, the best in the network’s 28-year history, so it’s not likely that any criticism over the hologram stunt is sticking with those in its corner offices. I’m also sure the rank-and-file employees are in “lighten up” mode due to the ratings throughout Campaign ’08; historic candidates and times have resulted in sky-high audience interest in politics, and the cable news channels have benefited the most. So why not spend some of that extra ad revenue on gimmicks like the holograms, or CNN chief national correspondent John King’s “magic wall,” or the virtual reality studios on Fox and NBC?

Here’s why: Most of the gimmicks only serve to highlight the aforementioned addiction to buzz, ratings and the desperate need to separate from the competition. King’s touchscreen wall, and his mastery of it, is a notable exception; it helped highlight the only demographic that counted Tuesday night — not the 25-54 advertiser-coveted audience segment, but those old enough to vote and how they actually voted in which parts of the country.

It’s not just George Lucas movies that form the pop culture antecedents for what you saw on Tuesday night. NBC’s Ann Curry stalked the computer-generated halls of what could have been Alexander the Great’s famed lost library, just like Michael Douglas did during a key scene from the 1994 film version of Michael Crichton’s novel, “Disclosure.” (Rest in peace, Mr. Crichton; you proved one last time you were one of our best fortune tellers.)

And while there’s nothing necessarily technologically groundbreaking about having anchors walk in front of green walls, with backgrounds digitally generated behind them, you couldn’t tell that to Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume. The retiring dean of FNC anchors spent the early part of his successful career in print before switching to television via ABC News and then Fox. He’s never worked local TV and pitched to a weatherman gesticulating wildly in front of a lime-green backdrop, so the sense of wonder he exhibited when a Fox reporter demonstrated a digitally-created “board” was, for me, refreshingly old-school. “You call that thing a board?” Hume asked. “There’s no wood in it, right?”

The Silicon-Powered Campaign and User-Generated Voter

The fascination with technology by TV news on election night, and during the campaign, does serve one important purpose: It mirrors the pioneering use of the Internet, social networks and text messaging by candidates, particularly the Obama camp. It also shows the promise of a politically engaged voter armed with user-generated videos, blogs and Twitter.

It’s the kind of technology that I had hoped the networks would focus on more Tuesday night, instead of Hollywood-style special effects. I realize that all networks have Web sites now, and their primary focus remains TV, but this Web 2.0 thing is the future, you know, and I still think TV news is having trouble getting its arms around it. To me, these are the tools that could help television bring new substance and a different style to political coverage.

I was part of an effort Tuesday night to do just that. I was one of three hosts for coverage on KING5.com, the Web site for the NBC affiliate in Seattle. Let me be clear: I’ve covered a lot of elections in 28 years as a journalist, from local races to gubernatorial contests to presidential campaigns. I covered the Clinton-Gore campaigns in Texas for the ABC affiliate in Dallas in 1992 and 1996 and was in Little Rock for both election nights, with a quick stop at the ’96 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I co-anchored CNN Radio’s coverage of the 2004 presidential election. And Tuesday night was the most fun I’ve had covering an election — ever.

It was loose and fast-paced, casual and informative (if I may say so). We provided those watching on the Internet the latest returns on the presidential and Washington state races, complete with victory speeches and concessions, but it was also a window into the newsgathering process on an extraordinary night. We showed everything, warts and all; open discussions on why the Associated Press had called the Washington governor’s race for Christine Gregoire when the secretary of state’s office had not, on-the-fly interviews with party operatives and former governors wandering the newsroom, reading online comments and questions from some of the Web surfers who were watching. Once Obama was declared the winner, we started pulling up blog photos and YouTube videos of street celebrations in Seattle and Washington D.C.

We didn’t have holograms, but we did have our computers (including my trusty Powerbook) and a flat-panel TV with graphics — along with your basic whiteboard and a child’s wooden map of the U.S. that was marked up with blue and red felt-tip pens as states went to Obama or McCain.

It wasn’t slick and polished, but it also didn’t descend into chaos. It was like having a political conversation — free of arm-waving hysterics, talking points and overt bias — in front of the Internet.

Light sabers not required.

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