The election coverage will be from CBS News. The studio may remind some savvy viewers of MTV.
CBS News will cover the 2020 election from different digs than it has in the past, moving a phalanx of its best-known anchors from its regular New York digs to a big studio in Times Square that once housed MTV’s long-running music program “TRL.” The new space will give Norah O’Donnell, Gayle King, Margaret Brennan, John Dickerson, and Ed O’Keefe a chance to maneuver along with crew and producers while making use of new technologies that let viewers see graphic displays and maps in real time.
The team will need room, thanks to the new rigors of covering an election amid a global pandemic and a bevy of new wrinkles in this critical national process.
“This is going to be the most complicated election of our lifetime, and there are a host of factors at play that necessitate a lot of planning and a lot of preparation and a lot of skill,” says O’Donnell, who will lead the coverage, during an interview Monday morning. CBS News has already drilled down on how to pivot in case of a dragged-out vote counting process that takes days, not hours, to process, if the pandemic creates unforeseen situations, and even if foreign interference is discovered, says O’Donnell. “We are going to rehearse all scenarios,” she adds.
The news unit has even tapped an election-law expert, David Becker, to help viewers understand issues around counting votes that may emerge as the night proceeds.
“As we prepare for one of the most complicated Election Nights in presidential history, we will bring the strength of our reporting team and the most in-depth voter information and polling from all 50 states to give audiences around the world an accurate assessment of the state of the race,” says CBS News President Susan Zirinsky, in a prepared statement. “We’re committed to being transparent – telling viewers in real-time what we know, when we know it and how we know it.”
CBS will hold forth in a production facility that is part of the headquarters of its parent company, ViacomCBS, and that reminder of the $12 billion merger of the two sibling media conglomerates late last year, if not deliberate, may as well be. As more fans of drama and comedy migrate to watching that programming on streaming services, companies like ViacomCBS are relying more heavily on live content from their sports and news divisions to draw the big audiences their advertisers demand.
CBS has reason to try new ways to burnish its news division. Election coverage draws millions of viewers to primetime. Indeed, Nielsen counted 71 million viewers who tuned in to 13 different networks in 2016 to see how Donald Trump outmaneuvered Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton in the electoral college. But among broadcast networks, more of those viewers watched ABC News and NBC News than CBS’ efforts.
CBS News has tapped an expert in election broadcasts to help the network capture modern audiences. David Bohrman is a longtime TV-news executive who once ran Washington coverage for CNN – and was involved with pairing anchor John King with his interactive “Magic Wall” – and helped NBC News with its 2016 election coverage. He believes CBS News will meet viewers in this election cycle with a more captivating presentation. “I think one of the things we thought was missing in 2018 and 16 was helping the viewer see the story, being able to visualize the data of the moment – the projections, what Americans are thinking, doing, saying,” says Borhman, who is CBS News’ executive producer of election coverage, in an interview.
During O’Donnell’s tenure at “CBS Evening News,” the ViacomCBS news unit has placed new emphasis on being close to Washington, D.C., but managing a large crew and cadre of anchors during the pandemic meant finding a bigger arena, says Bohrman. Anchors will need zones to keep socially distant from one another, and everyone on site will be tested for coronavirus exposure.
“It’s a pretty complex set-up and structure,” he notes, that will make use of augmented-reality visuals, LED screens with data feeds and an important role for a decision desk led by Anthony Salvanto. “Anthony will have a lot more tools and data visualization that we have built from the ground up,” says Bohrman. “There’s a whole new suite of things for him to do on his touch screen that deal with states and models and data.” The graphics play an important role on Election Night, he says, bringing viewers more deeply into the story as it unfolds across the evening.
Other CBS News personnel will also be involved. Washington correspondent Major Garrett will offer analysis of exit polls and potential integrity issues. Contributor Maria Elena Salinas will cover voting trends. Nancy Cordes, CBS News’ chief congressional correspondent will deliver updates on Senate and House races. Reince Preibus, a CBS News political analyst and President Trump’s former chief of staff, and former senior adviser to President Obama Valerie Jarrett will be on hand to provide insight.
“Election night is a night when there’s really a need to rise to the challenge,” says Bohrman. “The public expects it.”