Lester Holt logged nine or 10 hours behind a desk for MSNBC when the U.S. bombed Iraq. Now he has a new challenge: holding forth for NBC News on Nov. 3, when the network’s coverage of what is likely to be the most chaotic election in recent memory is scheduled to last until four in the morning.
The networks usually cover big elections until 2 a.m. By that time outlets have called the races in various states and viewers know who will sit in the White House in January. This year, 2 a.m. might just be the starting point.
As the big TV news outlets try to keep tabs on whether Republican President Donald Trump or Democratic challenger Joe Biden wins the night, they will also have to monitor a phalanx of other issues not normally part of these proceedings. And they will have to do it with limitations placed on their staff by the coronavirus pandemic. All the networks expect to be more cautious in how they call races, due to high demand for voting by mail, which may create illusory surges that don’t hold up later in the night — or change the tally in the days ahead. CBS News has even sketched out a scenario under which staffers may have to report on foreign interference in the election, says Norah O’Donnell, the “CBS Evening News” anchor who will lead the network’s election efforts on air. Every news anchor, producer and executive knows that such X-factors mean the evening — with potentially no end-of-the-night concession from one of the candidates — won’t end neatly.
“Every journalist will tell you that Election Night is kind of like the Super Bowl,” says Holt, but this year every play will be under intense scrutiny. “There is obviously a lot of passion, and our view is let’s report it as we know it.”
Media observers worry the networks may bobble the moment. “Newsrooms must prepare for the possibility that the outcome of the election might be unclear or, even when it is clear, not conceded,” says a recent white paper prepared by the Election Coverage and Democracy Network, a group of more than 50 journalism and political science scholars from more than 40 universities. “Under such a scenario, professional news organizations bear a particularly important responsibility in helping the public navigate what will be a confusing barrage of contested claims about the nature of the ballot-counting process.” The consortium recommends taking extra steps, such as lowering digital paywalls — so more people can see quality coverage — and not using information from social media to fill in gaps in the news.
At ABC News, staffers stand ready the day following the election broadcast “to essentially convert all of our shows on the schedule to being election update shows, if that’s necessary, and to be ready to break in with special reports anytime, day or night,” says James Goldston, the president of the unit. NBC News will be prepared to offer rolling coverage the next full day, says Noah Oppenheim, the news division’s president. “I think it is something the entire country is going to be focused on, and we are going to be in a position to cover it,” he says. At CBS News, executives have considered “everything from one night to a long, drawn-out week or month,” says O’Donnell.
Every anchor and producer will be focused on the results of the 2020 election, to be sure, but behind the scenes, they may also be looking at a more self-driven scorecard. As a greater number of viewers migrate to streaming-video services for drama and comedy, live news programming represents one of the main ways big U.S. media companies like ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal, Fox, Walt Disney and WarnerMedia can assemble the large, live audiences both advertisers and cable and satellite distributors covet. As such, the U.S. election may also serve as a referendum on the utility of TV news at a fraught moment for its media owners. Little wonder, then, that Fox News Channel is trotting out a bevy of new three-dimensional on-screen graphics and CBS News moved its election telecast to a large studio in Times Square that once served as the showcase for MTV’s “Total Request Live.”
Most of those parent companies have been working eagerly to expand their news divisions. ViacomCBS recently named a veteran producer of CBS’ “60 Minutes” as head of news programming at Nickelodeon to oversee that content for kids. NBC News is beefing up a streaming video feed of “Today.” Fox News has launched a streaming service for audiences overseas. During recent election showcases, ABC News produced one program for TV and another one for online viewers. Not in 2020. “We are always stronger when we work together, versus when we stand up two separate productions,” says Katie den Daas, executive producer of the streaming outlet ABC News Live.
The cable news networks won’t have to interrupt other coverage. They will simply go wall to wall. “We are really hunkering down for what could be a several-day or week — hopefully not month — experience,” says Fox News Channel’s Martha MacCallum.
And they are prepared to use those hours to school viewers in election nitty-gritty. TV news election coverage has long been a night for the wonks, the stats-focused Decision Desk, Fox News’ distinctive polling and CNN’s Magic Wall. But news staffers realize they will have to do more. CNN is likely to break out totals from absentee votes, says Sam Feist, the news outlet’s Washington bureau chief, and to caution viewers about delays in calling a victory. “An important message for our audience, and we will repeat it all night, is that just because it’s taking longer to project the winner in these elections doesn’t mean that anything is wrong,” he says. CBS News has attempted to get viewers ready over the past several weeks, says Susan Zirinsky, president of CBS News. “We’ve been focusing on critical issues in the run up to Election Day to help inform the audience, such as Major Garrett’s reporting on voter integrity issues, Jeff Pegues on use of misinformation aimed at influencing the electorate. Our polling is as deep as we have ever done, talking to voters in all 50 states. By Election Day, we will have talked to 100,000 people.”
Others plan similar precautions.
MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, whose interactive maps have become a fixture of that network’s coverage, says he intends to make sure viewers understand what’s driving the numbers that come in. He may have to reiterate several times, “This is the early vote. This is the mail-in vote,” telling viewers that any surge they see could be driven by partisan dynamics among Democrats or Republicans. Indeed, says Chris Stirewalt, Fox News’ politics editor, “a good night for Trump does not include very many calls until very late.”
The race for the White House isn’t the only story that needs to be told. The networks are also keeping an eye on various Senate races, because, depending on the outcome, the election could bring a change of control in the chamber. “It’s a big story,” says Fox News’ Bret Baier, and requires scrutinizing state races as well as President Trump’s effects on them. “This is a whole different ballgame than we have seen in recent years.”
The coronavirus has already factored into coverage. Some employees at Fox News recently tested positive, and some of its election-night personnel could be affected (Baier said on an Oct. 26 radio program that he tested negative). Fox News has said it will reduce its in-studio staff on election night to essential personnel.
All the networks have rules in place to manage the coronavirus, which often keep the correspondents in certain “zones” from which they cannot venture. Entire crews of technicians and floor personnel are being tested along with anchors. Kornacki says his station near MSNBC’s interactive maps already keeps him in a particular newsroom area, so he doesn’t have to limit his movements further.
But Kornacki, his colleagues and their rivals will all be challenged further on Nov. 3 and the days that follow. Adds Fox’s Stirewalt: “We are ready for hell’s half acre.”