Networks going big on election night

Super Tuesday coverage to be super-sized

Given the enormous interest in this year’s presidential election, the broadcast and cable nets have concocted supersized plans for their election night coverage.

That includes some big flourishes: ABC will be broadcasting its proceedings in Times Square on its 43rd Street JumboTron, while just across the street, Fox News will be beaming down from the Square’s gargantuan Astro Vision monitor.

NBC, meanwhile, plans to superimpose a gigantic national map on the Rockefeller Center skating rink and project Barack Obama’s and John McCain’s escalating electoral vote counts on the facade of its 30 Rock HQ.

The nets aren’t adding much more time to the already wall-to-wall coverage they provided in 2004, but this year’s telecasts promise a bit more heft. News orgs are planning more interactive coverage than ever, are stressing more international reportage — via live dispatches on global reaction to the results — and have sent more reporters out to battleground states, where polling-place surveillance is likely to emerge as a key story.

Gotham will, as usual, be the media epicenter for the big night, with the Big Three networks going live from 7 p.m. to roughly 2 a.m.

ABC will broadcast from its Times Square studios, while the Peacock and MSNBC will decamp at Rockefeller Plaza, which both siblings now call home.

CBS is staying pat with its usual converted newsroom, “to which we add a lot of material and cram in a lot more people,” noted senior VP for news coverage Paul Friedman. “Sets don’t matter that much,” he said. “What matters is the quality of what people say, how smart they are and how quick they are.”

And how many people tune in.

Although CBS anchor Katie Couric and ABC’s Charles Gibson made a big media splash with their respective Sarah Palin interviews, those performances didn’t result in a significant bump for either net’s numbers. In fact, if election-night numbers tend to mimic those of the evening broadcasts, as they did in 2004, when NBC notched 15 million total viewers to ABC’s 12.1 million and CBS’ 9.1 million, Brian Williams looks like the fave heading toward the big night.

Among the cablers, Fox News will be debuting two new high-def studios at its Avenue of the Americas HQ. The News Corp. cabler won big in 2004, with its 8 million total primetime viewers easily besting CNN (6.2 million) and MSNBC (2.8 million).

As such, Fox News enters the election-night fray looking formidable. However, with MSNBC having emerged as a left-leaning counterpart to the News Corp. outlet and polls showing Democrat Obama with a convincing lead 11 days out, Olbermann, Maddow and company may well prove more competitive.

CNN looms large, at least symbolically, as the interactive touch- screen technology — aka chief national correspondent John King’s “Magic Wall” — it employed through the protracted primary season has been embraced across the board by its competitors.

“They’re now chasing behind us getting walls like John’s,” said CNN senior programming veep David Bohrman, who promises “a few new technological tricks up our sleeves” on Election Day.

“We’ve gone virtual reality,” agreed NBC/MSNBC exec producer Phil Alongi. “We’ve taken Tim Russert’s little electronic clipboard and expanded it.”

The interactive component will extend to the Internet where, for instance, ABC’s broadband Digital Channel will stream original primetime content live, hosted by Alphabet warhorse Sam Donaldson. Couric will adapt her now-nightly webcast to a post-game continuation of the Eye’s coverage, taking to the Internet at 2 a.m. to conduct interviews, oversee analysis and take viewer questions.

Not surprisingly, after a turbulent eight-year White House administration that’s embarked on two overseas wars and an economic crisis that’s going deeper and more global every day, international interest in the election is running high, and so is American interest in that international interest.

“We will have reporters stationed around the world,” pledged ABC political director David Chalian, citing Pakistan, Baghdad and at least one African locale as a few examples of the Alphabet’s far-flung opinion-seeking effort.

The BBC, as previously reported by Variety, is for the first time combining its Blighty and BBC America resources to create one broadcast that will reach more than 200 nations. For some Yankee perspective, the Beeb has tapped “Nightline” icon Ted Koppel.

A spokesman for Al Jazeera English, meanwhile, said, “We’ll be mounting our most ambitious broadcast yet,” a 12-hour marathon emanating from its Washington, D.C., bureau and including reporting from 11 U.S. locations and 14 nations. Parent company Al Jazeera will beam AJE’s coverage to its estimated 53 million international viewers.

Back on these shores, the hanging-chad nightmare of 2000 and accusations of electoral chicanery in 2004 have led the news operations to mount monitor-the-vote operations.

“Florida 2000 taught us a lot of lessons,” said Chalian, who promoted ABC’s “Ballot Watch” operation.

“We will have at least half a dozen teams in states where irregularities could be a problem,” countered CNN’s Bohrman, who added that the Turner cabler has already received calls to its recently established voter hotline. CBS, working with the Election Protection Coalition, has pledged “hundreds” of polling-place monitors; NBC will continue its “Making Your Vote Count” initiative.

Despite estimates that up to one third of votes may be cast before Nov. 4, and the fact that polls will close at 7 p.m. in the potentially crucial swing state of Virginia, broadcasters are determined to call no race before its time. All the major players will rely on the nonpartisan National Election Poll’s data, ensuring that no net is liable to stick its neck out.

Finally, for viewers who can’t wait to get into the thick of it, or may not want to let go once it’s all over, the broadcast supersizing will begin a bit early, as CBS will air a one-hour “Evening News” on Monday, Nov. 3, while BET is planning all-day coverage on the following Wednesday… if Obama wins.

(William Triplett in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.)