Voters expected the nation’s big TV-news outlets to go late into the night on Election Day. But they may not have anticipated any of them starting up very early Sunday, several days ahead of the big event.
CNN anchor Kate Bolduan normally holds forth late mornings on the cable-news outlet, when many of her viewers are in the middle of their day. On Sunday morning, she started discussing the latest headlines at 3 a.m. – when even the most die-hard Saturday-night reveler has probably nodded off for the evening. ABC News prepared a “bonus” episode this morning of its “Start Here” podcast, during which James Goldston, the unit’s president, tried to set viewer expectations for November 3, noting that audiences may not see as much of what has been a hallmark of Election Night — calling state races as early as possible, hopefully in advance of rivals. With the coronavirus pandemic spurring more early and mail-in voting, such a practice “is not worth it,” Goldston said during his appearance.
The looming presidential election has spurred many of the nation’s three major TV-news outlets to re-do their usual coverage protocols. The Sunday-morning programming sets in motion what could be a days-long stint to cover the 2020 election, as well as the issues leading up to it as well as what many news executives believe could be a chaotic aftermath.
“We are prepared to cover the story with all of our resources until we have determined a winner — and even beyond,” says Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, in a recent interview. “We don’t know when we will project a winner, it’s worth nothing.”
In the meantime, there seems to be plenty to talk about. The weekday hosts of “Fox & Friends” were on hand this morning to anchor the weekend edition of the program, and the Fox Corporation-owned network plans to run weekend versions of most of its Monday-through-Friday schedule, with Harris Faulkner anchoring a weekend version of “Outnumbered” and Neil Cavuto, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Shannon Bream prepared to do original shows this evening. Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, who will lead coverage on Election Night, will lead a two-hour special this evening at 6 p.m.
MSNBC also plans to break up its weekend schedule, pre-empting some of the new hours it recently launched for Sunday evening with specials devoted to election coverage. One, “Countdown to Election Day,” will start at 8 p.m., led by Joy Reid, Nicole Wallace, Rachel Maddow and Brian Williams. The other, a special anchored by the network’s politics guru Steve Kornacki, starts at 10 p.m. eastern. Alicia Menendez, who normally anchors the early-evening “American Voices” on weekends, will hold forth today in Florida, speaking to voters during her hours.
CNN will continue its live coverage into primetime, giving weeknight anchors Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo two-hours shows this evening.
The stakes are high for the country, but they are also sizable for the networks — and the media companies that own them. 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 crowds advertisers and cable and satellite distributors demand. Little wonder that Fox News Channel is trotting out a bevy of futuristic on-screen graphics – including a 3-D version of the White House and CBS News is moving its election telecast to a large studio in Times Square that once served as the showcase for MTV’s “Total Request Live.”
“It adds some excitement and some production values, which is not a bad thing,” says David Bohrman, a longtime election-night producer who is overseeing the efforts for CBS News this year, in a recent interview. “People are engaged and interested in all of it, and nervous about what is going to happen.”
The news outlets will also seize the moment to promote new ventures. ABC News anticipates being ready to meet viewers who get more of their information from streaming-video content. “Streaming has become a very important part of how our viewers are getting their news,” says Goldston, the ABC News president, in a recent interview. “I think we are confident that this will be the biggest streaming election ever.”
With all of that in mind, the networks are likely to spend more time explaining how people vote than trying to predict which candidate is leading in the early going. “We are not paying attention to what the other networks are doing. What we are focused on is what our polling and our data is showing and whether – and what our – our coverage is and what our models are suggesting. And we’re looking at various different kinds of models and making sure that all the models are consistent and then able to make a call,” said Arnon Mishkin, speaking Sunday on Fox News Channel’s “Fox News Sunday.” Particularly this year, he said, “I think the competition is to try to be as accurate, as transparent and thankfully as cautious as possible because of all the stuff that’s going on about how this vote is being counted.”
The networks know their coverage will have to go late. But their calculations suggest it’s wise to start early.