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From CNN’s ‘Magic Wall’ to Fox News’ ‘Bill-board,’ Cable News Gears Up For Election Night

Analysis: TV outlets use voter numbers to secure viewer numbers in an evening that will use technology as much as it does familiar faces

Trying to keep up with the latest election results Tuesday night? You can look to your favorite news site or TV network, of course, but you can also look to the skies of Manhattan.

As part of a flashy stunt put into place by CNN, the lights of the spire of the landmark Empire State Building will turn red and blue on various sides to reflect the voting projections for races for the U.S. Senate as determined by the Time Warner cable-news outlet. The moment CNN determines either Republicans or Democrats have carried the day in that Congressional body the entire top of the building will turn red or blue, said Sam Feist, a CNN senior vice president who oversees the network’s Washington coverage.

“It’s not central to our coverage,” Feist said in an interview, noting the network may feature shots of the lights as it moves in and out of commercial breaks and have correspondents like Wolf  Blitzer make reference to them,  “but it’s just an interesting way to display the results of the night.”

Political candidates won’t be the only people gunning for your vote on November 4. As the nation’s news outlets gear up for another night of Election Day coverage, they are placing more stock in new and eye-popping  ways of organizing reams of data as well as live-streamed digital programming and, of course, the best-known personalities on their staff to lure viewers, and the all-important ratings points their attention can bring.

The networks have good reason to pull out all the stops. Election-night coverage can help burnish individual media brands as much as it can inform the public. Megyn Kelly captured the spotlight on Fox News Channel in 2012 by marching to the network’s  “Decision Desk” after Karl Rove questioned a projection that President Obama would take Ohio from challenger Mitt Romney. In doing so, she offered viewers a  brief glimpse of the charisma that ultimately propelled her to the network’s primetime lineup in 2013.

Fox News will feature Kelly and Brit Hume along with Shepard Smith, while Bill Hemmer will use a “Bill-board” to display and track data. A digital live stream will accompany the TV proceedings in what the network bills as a “casual format” featuring a range of personalities. At MSNBC, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews will be joined by Steve Kornacki, who will offer data analysis.  A separate digital stream will be called “Digital Decision 2014” and feature Ari Melber and Krystal Ball.

Smaller outlets will also seize upon the night. At Fusion, the cable network that is a joint venture of Univision and ABC News, Election Night will feature something a little off-kilter. In a two-hour special on November 4, Fusion will apply the color commentary more typically associated with professional wrestling to the political proceedings. Actor Kal Penn and Nando Vila, a Fusion personality who is more typically associated with the network’s coverage of soccer, will anchor the evening, which will also feature appearances by the puppets who star in Fusion’s satire program, “No, You Shut Up.”

“It’s arguably among the most important nights of the year for a news channel like CNN,” said Feist.

CNN, which will make Anderson Cooper and Blitzer the anchors of its coverage,  has spent a year revamping one of the signature elements of its election coverage – the interactive screen that correspondent John King has used to great effect each year as he attempts to make plain for viewers what is happening in various parts of the country. The so-called “Magic Wall” will be even more interactive this year, as viewers can use tables and mobile devices to gain access to the data King calls up on screen.

When the 2012 presidential election ended, Feist said, executives realized the time was nearing for an improvement of the concept.  After all, the software behind the wall had not changed since it debuted in 2008. CNN teamed with Microsoft to revamp the technology “from the ground up,” said Feist.  “The voter results on Election Night are the star, and the ‘Magic Wall’ is one of the key ways fo bringing that data to our viewers.”

They can expect to see King and his data screens “frequently” over the course of the evening, said Feist. “It’s about results. It’s about information. It’s about numbers.”  That will be true of the TV networks as much as it will be for the elections themselves.

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