‘Magic Wall’ Technology Leads Election Night Coverage as Networks Jump on Trend

John King CNN
Screenshot Courtesy of CNN

Election coverage has always been a forum for news networks to show off state of the art graphics and technology. In 2020 it became official: No election night coverage plan is complete without a designated operator of interactive screens that allow for detailed looks into returns on a county by county level. It’s a tough quadrennial assignment for broadcast news veterans who can help viewers interpret the slew of returns and exit poll data that flows in real time in presidential elections.

This year, all major TV news nets are making generous use of augmented reality and 3D graphics to help display information through giant charts and graphs — and in the case of Fox News Channel, a three-dimensional White House on-screen alongside the anchors.

“‘The ‘Magic Wall’ ended up being a great tool to talk about the election and data and votes,” David Bohrman, executive producer of election coverage for CBS News and a former Washington Bureau chief at CNN who oversaw early use of the technology there, told Variety. “Some technology just helps you tell the story.”

Below, Variety breaks down how each major network has produced its own Magic Wall star — a job that is decidedly cutting edge but sorely lacking in gender diversity.

John King on CNN

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Magic Board on CNN Screenshot Courtesy of CNN

King, CNN’s chief national correspondent who has long reigned over the cable newser’s interactive electoral map, returned along with the network’s signature “Magic Wall.” Yet this year, King has been routinely urging watchers to be patient and continued to repeat phrases like “if it holds,” “we’re not done” and “we will have a ways to go.”

As King zoomed in and out of the interactive screen to assess states and compare turnout to 2016’s election, he consistently reminded viewers that we’re dealing with a decidedly different election in 2020 — and it’s not an apples to apples comparison.

Talking about the tight race in Florida and other swing states, an excited King said “this is fun” many times during the broadcast.

“We’re not done, we have a long way to go,” King echoed throughout the night.

Bill Hemmer on Fox News

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Fox News coverage

“This is real-time data here. You’re seeing it when we’re seeing it,” Bill Hemmer told Fox News viewers with a grin as he tried to keep up with the flickering numbers on the magic board. After the second big wave of returns began to flow in after 9 p.m. ET, Hemmer’s signature “Bill-Board” flickered like an old-fashoned train schedule board at rush hour.

Hemmer is best known to Fox News viewers as a staple of its daytime and early evening anchor team since 2005. He’s also a seasoned correspondent who covered such major events as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. He’s also a veteran of the presidential campaign trail in 2008, 2012 and 2016. Before joining Fox News, he worked as a morning and nighttime anchor for CNN, and as a sportscaster in Cincinnati before that.

Hemmer’s long run as an anchor makes him the smoothest talker of the magic board bunch who never forgets to look at the audience. He’s also among the humblest. When a viewer question came in about whether Hemmer actually knows the ins and outs of all the colored squares of which he speaks, he flashed the camera an earnest look and advised with nothing but candor: “No, I’m looking at them all on this teleprompter here.”

Steve Kornacki on MSNBC

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Steve Kornacki leading coverage at MSNBC Courtesy of MSNBC

An energetic Steve Kornacki ran ship for MSNBC’s interactive touchscreen map, helping lead coverage alongside Rachel Maddow, Brian Williams, Joy Reid and Nicolle Wallace.

“Heading up to the studio and not leaving until we’ve got a result. Our live coverage starts at 6 — hope you’ll come along for the ride!” Kornacki wrote on Twitter earlier in the day.

That enthusiasm continued throughout the night, to the enjoyment of social media users across the country. Just hours into Tuesday night’s coverage, his name began trending on Twitter in the United States.

Meanwhile, Kornacki, clad in khakis and a striped tie, continued to intensely scrutinize the blue and red map in front of him as he reminded viewers much of the results have yet to unfold.

Chuck Todd on NBC News

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NBC News map

The “Meet the Press” moderator is unquestionably among the most facile with the gusher of voter data, and he demonstrated a keen understanding of the nooks and crannies of America’s body politic.

He was among the most active with hand gestures, and the only bearded one of the 2020 bunch. In addition to a clutch of papers Todd often carried, there was a pen laced between his fingers while he was working the magic board — a nod to his print journalism roots.

Todd occasionally engaged in tongue-twisters. At the same time, he wasn’t shy about expressing hunches and opinions.

“If Biden comes up short, that’s where he’s going to find the votes he should have gotten to get this,” Todd said in discussion the nuances of the race in North Carolina.

In Minnesota, he was measured about the depth of the red wave in the state. “We’ll see. I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic for the Trump campaign to get over the top in Minnesota,” he said, and that’s even as he saw the Land of 10,000 Lakes “trending over the long term toward Republicans.”

Todd was recruited as NBC News’ political director in 2007 by the late Tim Russert, a revered figure in NBC lore who died unexpectedly at the age of 58 in 2008. Todd served as NBC News’ White House correspondent from 2008 through 2014 before filling the seat previously held by Russert as the captain of “Meet the Press.” Before NBC, Todd spent 15 years as a top editor of National Journal’s respected political newsletter “The Hotline.”

Anthony Salvanto on CBS News

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CBS News election coverage

Salvanto is known for his intense focus during his segments at the magic board, focusing on the nitty gritty of county-by-county analyses of demographic and turnout patterns in state after state.

Salvanto usually holds a clutch of rolled up papers in one hand as the other glides across the magic board’s many touch screens. Shortly after 9 p.m. ET, he noted the clear pattern evident that voters who went to the polls on Tuesday favored President Trump 69-30, compared to a 53-46 tilt toward Joe Biden among early voters in the battleground state of North Carolina.

“That split defines this (race) as much as any geography,” Salvanto told viewers.

The politico, who serves as director of Elections and Surveys for CBS News, has been with the network since 2002. He’s got a Ph.D in political science from University of California at Irvine, and is the author of “Where Did You Get This Number: A Pollster’s Guide to Making Sense of the World.”

At 10 p.m. ET sharp, Salvanto shed his suit jacket and officially rolled up the sleeves of his button-down shirt.

Tom Llamas on ABC News

Chief national affairs correspondent Tom Llamas, who extensively followed the GOP race in 2016, returned to ABC News to break down the path for each state. As the weekend anchor of “World News Tonight,” Llamas has sat down with political leaders including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. He also landed an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with First Lady Melania Trump, traveling with her to Africa.

On election night, Llamas was praised online for his calm and measured coverage. “We want to make sure we have enough of a sample,” he told viewers before announcing results in particular parts of the country.