The Election as American Television (From Broadcast Networks to the Internet)

12 Nov


Just around 67 million viewers tuned into the election, just short of the 2008 figure. Most major stations featured coverage (NBC, CNN, PBS, Fox News, MSNBC, WGN, CBS, etc…) While there is much to be said about the programming, especially in its undeniable relationship to the facilitation of politics, certain aspects of class were present in my thoughts while watching varied coverage last Tuesday:

Style – NBC was the clear winner throughout the night, both in ratings and critiques of most aesthetically pleasing presentation. Drawing off Caldwell’s “Excessive Style,” NBC and others rooted much of their programming with the notion that “videographic television since the 1980’s has been marked by acute hyperactivity and an obsession with effects” (Caldwell 12-13). From the touch screen televisions with the ability to recall the past four elections, and move the states around to play with the votes left to the finish, down to the specific font and color scheme. Almost all stations with coverage featured these effects, but NBC offered the sleekest and most cohesive presentation, as evidenced by the highest viewership.

Liveness – It’s rumored that Diane Sawyer was drunk throughout ABC’s coverage of the election, bringing the unscripted nature of the entire ordeal into light. The live coverage of the election is all the more apparent in Sawyer’s behavior on air; the air of nowness is abundant because this is something unplanned and uncalled for. Sawyer was not scripted to appear the way she did, it was her present translated to the audience’s present.

However, Caldwell abashes the “liveness” myth by arguing that “live” events are “comprehensively planned, scripted, and rehearsed; are in fact highly regulated and rigidly  controlled performances, fabricated to fit a restricted block of viewing time” (Caldwell 31). This is both accurate and less accurate in the context of the election; Caldwell originally discusses planned liveness in the context of Monday Night Football, which holds a routine easy to translate to “live” TV. Less so with the election—there was no specific knowledge of when states’ electoral votes would be called, or the president would be declared, or eventually when both Obama and Romney gave their respective speeches. This resulted in a fair amount of awkward airtime, such as images of empty stages and commentator assurance that they had no idea when anything would happen. Despite the preparedness network coverage came into the night with (see “style”) and a basic knowledge of how the night would likely progress (given past election coverage, awareness of key swing states, etc), the ambiguity of when key moments in the election would occur is perhaps what contributes to this idea of “liveness–” the programming is dependent on factors uncontrollable.

Social Setting – The election created both a literal social setting, as well as an implied one. The party at Reynolds Club is one small example of the structures established by the social nature of the election; people gathered across the nation to communally watch the television coverage, whether consciously (as parties) or unconsciously (in bars, as a family etc). What the election also did was to create an extremely influential water-cooler topic. While this may or may not be specific to programming instead of the events, this type of conversation and social interaction was certainly facilitated by television.

Election Binge ­– Mainly in the context of Tuesday’s theme, watching full coverage of the election was similar to television binge. Is binging on news coverage the same as binging on traditional television shows? The election certainly falls into what is “acceptable” to binge on—those who spent ages following the election and then many hours watching it are partaking in an American tradition, not addicts. I’m not sure about others, but I was not able to personally dedicate the amount of time required to fully watch coverage (from onset to both speeches having been given). Perhaps it’s a stretch to say that election coverage is binging, but would anybody else say they had similar thoughts? What constitutes binging—does it have to be 20+ hours and feature a narrative structure to count?

Related Videos:

NBC calls Obama as the winner

Diane Sawyer calls Minnesota

3 Responses to “The Election as American Television (From Broadcast Networks to the Internet)”

  1. Keegan Hankes November 12, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

    I’m not sure I’d be comfortable labeling watching the election coverage as bingeing straight out. Although (in my mind) it has the duration to qualify, I’m hesitant since the most common mode of viewership involves frequent channel changes to different coverage and perspectives — an amount of change that I don’t think constitutes bingeing. This is in part due to the fact that all the different channels have wildly different bias and were calling states at different times.

    One interesting parallel to our conversation in class is with the notion of addiction. We talked about the compulsion to stay on the couch and hit the play button just one more time to watch the next episode (getting just a one more narrative fix) — a phenomenon that seems comparable to the desire to just watch for one more final state. Even though it’s feature television, maybe these moments of simultaneous stasis (staying on one channel) and action (states being called) while waiting for just one more electoral, information fix make the election coverage that much similar to bingeing.

    • Eric Thurm November 12, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

      I’m with Keegan on calling election coverage bingeing, though for different reasons. I agree that changing channels constantly alters what it means to binge, but I’m sure that precludes election coverage from bingeing status – it’s just a different sort of content.

      Instead, I think that the difference between bingeing and election coverage (which I would argue is actually an addiction) is one of temporality and available content. Watching coverage of live events is based in a desire to know all of the available information and get as much perspective on the election (or sporting event or whatever other live event) as possible. There seems to be a different viewing relationship for bingeing, where you can say “I will parcel out the time it takes me to consume this story,” and election coverage, which is mostly a question of how much information you consume before an outcome that will render all of that viewing moot.

      • Jan Feldman November 18, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

        While watching the election on TV, my roommates and I definitely switched channels to try to get more information from different perspectives. But a very interesting (and time-dependent) resource provided by the New York Times website was a page labeled “Network Calls.” In addition to pages with maps, election scenarios, and exit polls, this page provided information about which networks and news sources had called which states for which candidates at any given time. It had a row for each state, and a column for the New York Times, the AP, CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, and Fox. When a network called a state, they would put a red or blue mark in appropriate box. Although this was very useful while following the election in real time, it was useless after the fact, and the page has since been taken down.

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