Last night was “Election Night in America” on CNN, and the network fired up its election set, complete with giant Vista Wall crawling with 24 CNN correspondents–a visual cue that nobody, and they mean nobody, had ever assembled an election night army of reporters like CNN. They were standing by, on crowded risers in the back of ballrooms in hotels from Florida to Iowa. You, home viewer, could sit back satisfied that when something actually happened in one of those ballrooms, CNN would be on it.
Here’s the thing. Nothing happened. Sure, there was a massive political realignment underway across the country, as the nation gradually repainted state after state in Republican red. But all those reporters filling up that 24-box? They pretty much fulfilled the cliche paint-by-numbers part of election night on TV: standing in a room, telling viewers what they could’ve guessed all by themselves: the crowd is excited (or concerned). The band is playing (or the room is emptying out). They’re cautiously optimistic here at clearly-going-to-lose headquarters. The candidate is upstairs, we’ve been told, watching returns.
Every TV reporter has spent a night on one of those risers, and we’ve all repeated those very same boilerplate observations. The only real news that ever happens in one of those ballrooms or sports bars is when the candidate speaks, and often that speech gets carried live, bypassing the reporter in the room altogether. CNN, for its part, pretty much skipped candidate speeches altogether. And that left all of those 24 reporters with very little to offer, other than the promotional value of being there.
So why have the Unprecedented Team of Campaign Reporters? (Did they all even make air last night?) Insight into the machinations of the various campaigns was largely left to CNN’s analysts and experts. After all, most of the reporters on election night duty had not been covering those campaigns for months, but rather, dropped in over the last few days. One of the 24 reporters was CNN’s justice correspondent, for instance.
It’s good to know that supporters of winning and losing campaigns are having fun at their election night parties, and that the candidates are behind closed doors watching the returns, but a cynic could argue the Vista Wall filled with intrepid reporters on duty was merely election night window dressing, just like the patriotic red and blue stars on the studio floor and the hyper-dramatic music that accompanied every projection and poll closing.
Compare the ROI on putting all those reporters in place to the decidedly low-cost but arguably very high value content coming from CNN’s digital coverage, the #Hambycast. No campaign reporters, no “major, major projections,” just CNN’s Peter Hamby and guests sitting around a table, drinking soda, eating pizza, and talking about politics. When there was a reason to show video, they did. Most of the time, they just shared information and insight into the races that were unfolding across the country, and what it meant. They weren’t trying too hard. They came across as legitimate political geeks geeking out on a big, big night.
So perhaps it’s time to surrender some of the traditions of election night–like a reporter at every headquarters, even if it does make for a dramatic visual on the election set–and just focus on the content. Maybe even order up some pizza.