How Broadcast News Is Prepping for the Midterms: "It Is the Super Bowl of Our Business"

Gayle King-Jeff Glor-Norah O’Donnel- John Dickerson -Bianna Golodryga-Publicity- H 2018
Clarke Smith/CBS News

"We're really trying to be the smartest election night," says CBS News anchor Norah O'Donnell of her network's high-stakes midterm elections coverage.

There's one thing the highly competitive broadcast news anchors and producers responsible for covering the midterm elections can agree on: the stakes almost couldn't be higher, both for politicians and the television networks that cover them.

"These are the events that define a news division," says Marc Burstein, ABC News senior executive producer. "It is the Super Bowl of our business."

Interest in the elections has already seemingly exceeded broadcasters' initial expectations: ABC News had always planned to begin coverage at 8 p.m. on the East Coast, but both NBC News and CBS News have since moved up their start time one hour to match the network. "NBC and CBS recently decided to follow that lead that we announced several weeks ago," Burstein said.

Another change for NBC News: Megyn Kelly, now nearing an exit from the network, was announced on Oct. 10 as a co-leader of its election coverage. "I think you'll just see more of an ensemble," says NBC News/MSNBC svp special programming Rashida Jones. "We'll use Andrea [Mitchell] more, we'll use Kacie [Hunt] more, we'll use our reporting teams more."

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with ABC's Burstein, NBC's Jones, and CBS This Morning co-anchors John Dickerson and Norah O'Donnell, who are helping to lead the network's programming.

How important are tonight's elections?

Marc Burstein: We've never put this many resources into a midterm election. We are treating this as a presidential election in every single way.... We built an entire new studio just for this purpose. Normally, we wouldn't do that until the next presidential election, if at all.... It's hugely important. These are the events that define a news division. There's a lot on the line. There's a lot at stake. It is the Super Bowl of our business. And we do the absolute best job we can.

Rashida Jones: It just affects everyone at a time when our country is so polarized. Everyone is impacted by the outcome of this night.... We've never seen this level of interest in a midterm election. I think the viewers are very clearly understanding how big and important of a night it is.

Norah O'Donnell: People are charged up on both sides.

John Dickerson: The first chance for the public to speak in response to a transformational president is the thing that I'm focused on.

What's at stake for President Trump, who has said that he's essentially "on the ballot"?

Burstein: He's made it a referendum on his presidency...and it deserves the importance that we've devoted to it.

Dickerson: You want to be really careful and contextual and not over-read things. This is clearly a response to and referendum on the president, but what exactly does that mean? We'll be in the beginnings of knowing that on Tuesday night, but we won't really know it until we get some distance from Tuesday night.

What will your network do to stand out from the competition?

Burstein: I do think we have the best team in the business, and we're going to showcase them all night long.

Jones: We want to throw all of our weight and energy, with Lester [Holt] and Savannah [Guthrie] being at the helm there.... We really threw everything else at it. I think every single person that's in our reporting structure is in some way contributing on some network through the night.... I think our digital play is going to be a differentiator for us. We're appearing in so many different places.... When you watch, it will feel bigger and better than I think anything that we've ever done before.

O'Donnell: We're really trying to be the smartest election night. With less "He said vs. he said" and more kind of, "Here's what happened and why." ... We walked into this saying that we want to spend as much time analyzing the data. We've got so many smart people at CBS News who spend their careers doing this.

What's one mistake that was made during coverage of the 2016 presidential election that your network won't make tonight?

Burstein: We are going to be more transparent throughout the night. If we're not able to project a race, we'll tell you why.

Jones: We listened more from our viewers and people who live in the communities that are impacted. We've definitely been more aggressive in getting correspondents out to tell those stories.

O'Donnell: We want to spend more time touching base with our correspondents in the field and delivering their reporting very quickly on the air. That's something we can do better.

Dickerson: Covering what's in front of you has been something we've always been focused on.... We don't have to speculate, or guess, or do percentages about how things are going to turn out.

Are you willing to make a prediction about how things will shake out? Will the Democrats take back the House of Representatives?

Burstein: I don't think anybody should listen to predictions. Anybody who does make them, I would pay no attention to.

O'Donnell: It will be a historic night for women. That's why the networks are devoting so much time to this. It is going to be a historic night, no matter which party takes control. There are a record number of women on the ballot.... There will be a lot of firsts on election night.