Campaigns a challenge for all-news cablers

The culmination of the two-year battle to succeed George W. Bush in the White House amounted to a marathon workday not just for Barack Obama and John McCain but for newsies of all stripes.

The biggest challenge for the all-news cablers, who have happily ridden the wave of interest in the 2008 contest, was to keep up the sense of don’t-touch-that-dial urgency during the daytime and early evening when there was little else to cover other than extraordinarily long lines in many polling locations around the country and the de riguer Election Day shots of pols and celebs emerging from voting booths.

Every aspect of the voting process was covered endlessly and breathlessly, and with impressive coordination of reporters across the country and tech tools that hadn’t even been invented during the last presidential contest in 2004. (Think John King and CNN’s touch-screen interactive map illustrating red and blue state America.)

Viewers were treated to scenes that were at times surreal at some polling locations. TV cameras and paparazzi staked out a Brentwood site, waiting for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to arrive, and one woman who was there complained to a local radio station that their lights obstructed her view of her ballot. Thesp Tim Robbins was upset and annoyed when he arrived at his New York polling place to find his name not on the voting rolls, the New York Times dutifully reported.

As always, the news cablers found themselves with more time than they could soberly fill — and seemingly more determined than ever not to relinquish audience to competitors. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all continued to run their on-screen news crawls throughout commercial breaks, creating L-shaped blocks of numbers and text around the shrunken ads.

During those hours, anchors and analysts endeavored to be cautious — as they pledged in pre-election interviews — but several had a difficult time not referring to an Obama presidency as if it were a fait accompli. Fox News’ Brit Hume, for example, gently chided Morton Kondracke not to get ahead of the discussion in the half-hour before any of the state voting had concluded.

The first calls — neither a surprise, of Vermont for Democrat Obama and Kentucky to Republican McCain, respectively — came moments after the polls closed in those states. CNN even cued up a musical fanfare to signify that a state was being called.

Anecdotal information indicated that turnout across the country would be large, although experts cautioned that it wouldn’t be until late in the evening until they go a final read on whether it would shatter records.

Across the entertainment industry, supporters of both candidates tried to resist the impulse to read too much into the exit polls, mindful of 2004 when indicators pointed to a victory for John Kerry. Some spent the day taking part in the massive get out the vote efforts.

A contingent of Obama’s key Hollywood supporters were with the candidate in Chicago, where the campaign had scheduled a celebration in Grant Park. Those included Wild Brain CEO Charles Rivkin and music executive Nicole Avant, Obama’s Southern California campaign co-chairs. Also present was producer Joe Pichirallo, one of Joseph Biden’s few industry backers when he was waging his own bid in the presidential primaries.

Asked what the mood was like in the Obama camp while the polls remained open, political consultant Andy Spahn, who reps Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, sent a one-word e-mail response: “Hope.”

Some of McCain’s supporters planned to attend his election night party at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, including MGM CEO Harry Sloan.

Others have been fanned out for days, or even weeks, in battleground states in efforts to canvass precincts. Bob Gumer, partner in the Kaplan Stahler Gumer Braun literary agency, arrived in Florida two weeks ago on behalf of Obama and has been there ever since.

Producer Hawk Koch organized some of the nation’s largest Obama phone banks, including large operations on Stage 2 of the Culver Studios, a soundstage at Sunset Gower studios and other facilities at Revelations Entertainment in Santa Monica.

“What they needed was a place for phone banks. I got a very good deal at both Culver City and Sunset Gower,” said Koch.

Besides the soundstage call centers, Koch arranged space at lunchtime at L.A. Farm restaurant and throughout the day at Mark Gordon Co. and Revelations, the company run by Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary.

The Culver City call center was also set up for 300 volunteer callers — all using their own cell phones to phone voters in battleground states — but at midday was on pace to double that number. It had been operating out of the studio commissary on weekends but shifted to Stage 2 for the final push.

“I’m a producer,” Koch said. “I put things together.”

(Brian Lowry contributed to this report.)

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