Things didn’t start out so hot. Wolf Blitzer hovered stiffly in front of an intimidating, CENTCOM-worthy bank of screens, headset-laden producers and reporters raced around in the brightly lit background while earphones and laptops sprouted around the set like Web 2.0 flora and fauna. On the pundit side, Republicans Bill Bennett and JC Watts were wearing red ties, while Democrats Paul Begala and James Carville sported blue ties behind their own wall of laptops and flat-screen TV’s. Reporters John King and Candy Crowley waited at another desk for their chance to weigh in. In short, CNN looked prepped to smother its election coverage under a thick layer of high-tech, color-coordinated atmospherics.
But somehow it all came together. In the round-ups of the election coverage on network and cable TV this morning, not enough praise has been heaped on CNN’s innovative, engaging and comprehensive program last night.
Blitzer and Jeff Greenfield managed the bank of screens and their constantly changing array of options, superbly, orchestrating a complicated choreography between the giant, all-encompassing screen, and several smaller, race-by race-screens. On another stage, Paula Zahn and CNN political correspondent Bill Schneider looked at the exit poll numbers as they came in, breaking down several key contests by race, gender and religion. Unlike elections past, they were mostly able refrain from saying anything that went too far beyond what the raw numbers reasonably suggested.
Lou Dobbs, typically, was far less impressive than his colleagues. But when “angry everyman” Jack Cafferty joined Dobbs early in the evening for some grumpy old man-style banter, it made all the Dobbsian nonsense that came later more palatable.
The partisan pundits — Bennett, Watts, Begala and Carville — were often the best part of the show. While Begala came off as a blind partisan, Watts stepped up to call him on some of his more blatant distortions. Bennett — as he so often does — seemed annoyed to be there, and his mood darkened as the evening went on. The real value of their contribution however (and you could see this happening in the background in many shots), was that when not pontificating, the four were working the phones, talking to contacts in several key races. Many times, when the cameras came back to them, one of the group — usually Carville — had some new nugget from inside a campaign to share.
The only real burp in the evening came whenever the network cut to Tryst, the DC coffee shop where some producer had the bright idea to entice a collection of big-ticket bloggers to come and stare at their computer screens — for the camera. Correspondents Jackie Schechner and Abbi Tatton did their best to make the collection of sport-coated pasties seem interesting, but the bit failed miserably, as we’ve already noted.
The upshot is that we think we’ve seen the future of election-night broadcasts, and it is CNN.