Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Katie Couric wasn't the princess of election coverage

On Election Night, I probably spent more time online than I did watching TV, and when I did watch TV, I was flipping through several channels.

Therefore, I did not actually see what has been designated as The Television Technical Enhancement of 2008 - the hologram.

I finally saw it when I looked at this Extreme Mortman post, which shared this YouTube video:

Extreme Mortman got to the crux of the matter with its post title: "Help Me Obi Won Blitzer, You’re Our Only Hope."

And if you don't recognize the reference, Silicon Alley Insider spells it out:

The hologram...was a throwback to Star Wars, complete with the hunched-over, I'm-talking-to-a-droid body posture...

So why did CNN do this? To keep people glued to the dial. News coverage is competitive, and always has been:

Going all-out is a TV news tradition, since at least 1960. That year, NBC transformed Studio 8H (now home of "Saturday Night Live") into a vast election center, with anchors David Brinkley and Chet Huntley presiding over dozens of correspondents and banks of numerical displays.

Though impressive in scale, the coverage (which can be glimpsed on YouTube clips) had no holograms, nor any reference to red or blue states (for one reason, it wasn't aired in color yet).

This video shows the 1960 technology, including the summary board (ooh!) and the RCA 501 computer (aah!). Much time was spent on explaining the operations of the RCA 501 computer, which took incoming vote data; used stored statistics on farm, labor, and other voting blocs; and used this data to extrapolate election results.

The clip is from the beginning of the broadcast. So what happened? Tech.Blorge:

Once 10% of the results are in, the computer predicts John F Kennedy will beat Richard Nixon by 51.1% to 48.9% in the popular vote, a forecast it sticks to throughout the night.

The network proudly proclaims that RAC-501 is the only computer which at no point predicts a Nixon victory; says one NBC anchor, “If they ever teach this machine to talk, we’re out of business.” (The actual vote results are slightly different because RCA-501 doesn’t include third-party candidates; of votes cast for the two leading candidates, Kennedy prevails by 50.1-49.9%)

And, more importantly to NBC...

As the networks recognize, the stakes are impalpable but high. Thus when Chet Huntley and David Brinkley scored for NBC in 1960, NBC magically swept past CBS to become the top network in most other respects as well.

But what of 2008 and CNN's gizmo? As I write this, the only available ratings are for the broadcast networks.

In the early metered market report ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC combined for a 26.5/37 (household rating, share). ABC led with a 9.3/13, followed by NBC with an 8.5/12, CBS with a 4.7/7 and Fox with a 4.0/5.

I'm not sure how much a ratings point is worth financially, or how much of CBS' low performance is due to the Couric effect, but if Couric is the cause of the low ratings, that hire was more expensive than first believed.

Ironically, Tom Shales praised Couric's performance, even though many apparently didn't see it:

And at CBS News, the decision was made to forgo the fancy high-tech trappings and emphasize the human element, with Couric anchoring and commentators Bob Schieffer (vigorous and helpful) and Jeff Greenfield (the proverbial fuddy-duddy) helping. The 2008 campaign, especially in recent months, marked a genuine comeback for Couric, who has been much maligned since moving to the evening news; she did the best of all network interviews with vice presidential candidate Palin.

Perhaps Couric should have interviewed Edward R. Murrow as part of the proceedings. That might have gotten CBS some additional viewers.

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