On Election Night, TV Networks Go Back to Basics

By Alex Weprin 

If there was an overarching theme of 2012’s election coverage, it was a simple one: back to basics.

With the exception of NBC and ABC’s somewhat dramatic and public coverage, most of the channels refrained from the public displays, and used technological gimmicks sparingly. CBS News coverage, anchored by Scott Pelley for the first time, occasionally relied on augmented reality graphics in Studio 57, but even they were subtle, little more than a modern take on the image that viewers at home see above the anchor’s shoulder. On CNN, gone were the holograms and dozens of analysts that made up the “best political team on television™”. Instead, viewers saw a smaller, tighter, more interesting group of analysts, and the only technology was John King’s actually helpful “Magic Wall.”

On Fox News the mood was dour, and on MSNBC the mood was gleeful, but both networks kept it simple, with the hosts and analysts sitting behind the desks and talking about the results. After the call, Fox News had what many observers thought was the best TV of the night, with Karl Rove arguing that Ohio could be won, and Megyn Kelly walking to “The Decision Desk” to get their take. No special effects required, just a camera following her down the hallway.


NBC and ABC had the most over-the-top elements, with “Democracy Plaza” and the Times Square moments respectively.

Compared to the 2008 election coverage, only CBS News and Fox News saw their viewership grow. Every other network was down. Whether that was due to the new anchor teams, the politics of the viewers or the sensibilities of the newscasts is unclear.

What is clear, however, was that 2012 was a step back in time for the newscasts. There were no silly experiments or sets overloaded with hacky analysts (though there were a few hacky analysts), and at the heart of every newscast were the anchors and the correspondents. Technology was used sparingly and mostly effectively, providing clear graphics and explanations.

Most importantly, every network got it right the first time, even if Karl Rove disagreed.