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How Midterms Went Mainstream on TV News

Marc Burstein has been covering elections since 1998. Now the ABC News executive is gearing up for what he believes will be an event of seismic proportions.

The 2018 midterm elections on Nov. 6 were always going to be contentious, says Burstein, ABC News senior executive producer of special events, but in the wake of the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Republican and Democratic voters are energized in ways that no one had previously anticipated.

“I think this is absolutely the biggest midterm election in my time — and maybe a generation,” says Burstein. “We are treating this as if it were a presidential election.”

There’s good reason to pull out all the stops. Viewership is likely to be intense, just as it was for the news networks’ coverage of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s September hearing of testimony from then-Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were attending high school in the 1980s. Sure, the cable-news nets gave the event wall-to-wall coverage, but NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS also preempted game shows, kiddie fare and talk shows to present the spectacle.

Not all of the coverage is limited to the election itself. CNN, for example, will present a debate and a town hall meeting with candidates in two of the most consequential races in the weeks leading up to the midterms. On Oct. 18, the AT&T-owned cable-news outlet will broadcast a town hall event featuring Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic challenger for the Texas Senate seat now held by Republican Ted Cruz. (CNN says Cruz has declined to take part in the event.) And on Oct. 21, the network will present a debate between Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, vying for the Florida governor’s seat that Republican Rick Scott is vacating in his run for the Senate.

Some networks will use the coverage to test new methods. ABC News will tap FiveThirtyEight, the stats-and-analysis site run by Nate Silver that it purchased from corporate cousin ESPN in April, to augment its report, says Burstein.

But all of the nets will be focused on the big night. NBC News will rely on Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd and Megyn Kelly, while MSNBC will have Rachel Maddow, Brian Williams and Nicolle Wallace anchor primetime coverage. Fox News Channel’s election cablecast will be co-anchored by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, with contributions from Chris Wallace, Brit Hume, Dana Perino, Shannon Bream and Juan Williams. ABC News coverage will be led by George Stephanopoulos, with contributions from David Muir, Martha Raddatz, Amy Robach and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. CBS This Morning co-hosts Norah O’Donnell, Gayle King, John Dickerson and Bianna Golodryga, and CBS Evening News anchor Jeff Glor will lead CBS primetime election coverage, while CBSN, the CBS News streaming-video hub, will launch coverage at 5 p.m. on Election Day.

But the news networks aren’t the only ones getting in on the act. Some of TV’s late-night programs are also gravitating toward the midterms.

At CBS, Stephen Colbert will be hosting a live broadcast of “The Late Show” on election night, continuing a tradition of doing the show live around big events of national importance. Seth Meyers’ Nov. 6 broadcast of NBC’s “Late Night” — with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes as one of his guests — will be live, as will Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” led by Trevor Noah. Does Noah think the midterms are important? The title of the broadcast tells you all you need to know: “Democalypse 2018: Let’s Try This Again, America.”

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