Bells and Whistles

The networks’ high-tech tricks disappoint on election night

While the newspaper industry scrambles to “shore up” its economy with layoff after layoff, cable news seems to be doing just fine. “We’ve got so much money we don’t know what to do with it,” CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News seemed to admit as they trotted out their latest gizmos for the election night broadcast.

On top of CNN’s standard “Magic Wall” feature, Wolf Blitzer and company offered up the holographic interview, in which television viewers saw what looked like a face-to-face in-studio Q&A when, in fact, the interviewee was somewhere else entirely and his or her image was beamed into the studio. Or something like that. The process involves thirty-five high-definition cameras and some fancy computer image compositing. The gadget’s best and worst moment? When Anderson Cooper interviewed of the Black Eyed Peas about his Obama’s speech mash-up song. The Magic Wall was also there in full glory, used to particularly poor effect when, after Ohio was called for Obama, John King tried to do some time-killing math to show how McCain could get to 270 by winning states that he obviously wouldn’t, and simultaneously avoided awarding to Obama California and other states that would put him over.

MSNBC’s team also had two aces under their sleeve. First, they were broadcasting from Rockefeller Center, where they had embedded a map of the U.S. under the ice of the skating rink. As the results were coming in, the plan went, the map would change, with certain states turning red or blue. Sounds cool, but it turned out to be an icy, slushy mess. Now, MSNBC also created a 3D “Virtual Studio,” that looks like a futuristic Greco-Roman building that, if you notice what you can “see” through the “windows” seems to float in the air, both in New York or Washington D.C.

Fox News was the least flashy, but most self-referential, with its “Launch Pad” gizmo that, like CNN’s Magic Wall, allowed anchor Megyn Kelly to manipulate data and maps on a touch screen.

So why did they do it? Did the networks assume that they could earn the highest ratings by out-technologizing one another? Or were the gadgets just safeguards, designed to delay the inevitable early night results? Many worried about how the networks would fill the hours on election night if the returns pointed to a clear and early victory for Obama. In part, the gizmos were there to distract viewers from the logical conclusion that Obama had won after Ohio was called; to keep them watching—not for analysis, but to see what kind of Star Trek technology was coming next.

But despite all the plugging, CNN only did a handful of holographic interviews, probably because lugging and setting up thirty-five cameras isn’t the easiest way to do journalism. And most of the holographic interviews centered on the theme of how weird it was thata holographic interview was being conducted. To wit:

Anderson Cooper: How is this night for you? Oh, this is great. We’re on the eve of a brand new day in America, and it feels good being here in chicago, uh, all this technology, I’m being beamed to you like it’s Star Wars and stuff.

Anderson Cooper: Yeah, it looks like… basically like… exactly like in, uh, in Star Trek, when they would beam people down. That’s what it looks like right here. Yeah, but, yeah, but this is, it’s, it’s a beautiful time here…

It’s cool that technology now allows holographic interviews or virtual studios, but that doesn’t mean that these tools are the most effective, necessary, vital, dynamic, or interesting ways of delivering information. All this is not to say that some technology isn’t put to good use. The instantly updated maps and the ability to work out hypothetical situations are both and something that some viewers would probably be figuring out with paper and pencil if the networks weren’t. Also, the maps’ capability to show county-by-county results and tallies in any given state offers a lot of nuance beyond the electoral college math. And, information presented visually does help viewers understand the story more fully.

But holograms and ice-skating rinks go too far. Election night wasn’t the first time networks flexed their technological muscles, and it certainly won’t be the last. Here’s hoping that, in the future, the networks forego flash for substance.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.