Election Night Post-Mortem: Power Failures, Virtual Sets, Election Desk Controversies

Diane Sawyer ABC News Election Night - P 2012

Diane Sawyer ABC News Election Night - P 2012

Pundits may have predicted a long night of recounts and challenges, but after $6 billion spent, the 2012 election only took about 10 minutes longer to call than 2008.

With a close race predicted for the 2012 presidential election, news divisions were gearing up for recounts and inconclusive results stretching into the wee hours of the morning. But the election that will give President Obama four more years in the White House was over only about 10 minutes later than the decisive 2008 election. 

In a bit of post-election hindsight, many pundits have pointed out that the $6 billion election, the most expensive in history thanks to the 2010 Supreme Court decision that loosened restrictions on political advertising, changed almost nothing. Obama is still in the office. The Democrats still have a majority in the Senate. And Republicans still have the House. And it’s a little bit of irony that Florida, the state that decided it all in 2000, has been rendered irrelevant to the results in 2012, still sitting on Electoral College maps an inconclusive shade of grey long after Mitt Romney has conceded and Obama has delivered his victory speech.

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If 2012 wasn’t quite the nail-biter it was cracked up to be, news divisions nevertheless prepared for any eventuality. A lesson learned the hard way in 2000, when Americans awoke the day after the election without a president. And 2004, offered its own cautionary narrative when early exit polling seemed to portend a victory for John Kerry.

With many pre-election polls finding a dead heat between Obama and Romney, there was much focus on the networks’ decisions desks, which are staffed with pollsters crunching exit poll data from the National Election Pool (made up of representatives from ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and the Associated Press) in order to call states for the candidates. ABC News and NBC News sequestered their decision desks away from pressure packed control rooms. ABC News’ pollsters were ensconced at the network’s Upper West Side headquarters while election coverage originated from ABC’s Times Square studios more than 20 blocks south. The Fox News decision desk commanded an unexpected cameo during the network’s coverage when Karl Rove – a Republican strategist and principal of the Super PAC Crossroads GPS – disagreed with their decision to call Ohio for Obama. The on-air dispute caused anchor Megyn Kelly to march down to the decision desk office and interview the analysts about their methodology. They were 99.95 percent sure Ohio would go for Obama, they told her.

CBS News broke with some of its network peers in that it did not sequester its decision desk away from the cacophony of the newsroom. The CBS News “election desk” was set up in a circular formation behind Scott Pelley’s anchor position in the main studio. CBS News president David Rhodes explained that he had no qualms about having “editorial conversations” with CBS News pollsters and analysts. “We are trying to be very transparent,” he explained from the control room on Tuesday night. “It doesn’t help to put [the decision desk] somewhere where people can’t see it.”

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The news divisions also used Election Night to roll out new bells and whistles. CNN took over the Empire State Building’s lighted tower to project state-by-state wins in blue for Obama and red for Romney. ABC News also had its own light display; two blue and red columns on the corner of the Times Square studio steadily filled up like mercury in a thermometer as states were called for each candidate. And the virtual set was a popular feature this year.

CBS News’ Byron Pitts was stationed in the 60 Minutes studio with green screen replicas of the House and Senate while Anthony Mason was in the CBS This Morning Studio with the Electoral College map of the United States with a graphic sliding scale of “toss-up,” “lean” and “likely.”

CNN constructed a virtual studio utilizing green screens and additional super secret technology - no one at the network will say how it's done - to create a “Virtual Senate.” The scale replica of the Senate chamber, complete with Perceptive Pixel touch screen desks on either side of the political aisle, allowed correspondent Tom Foreman to track Senate races in 3D.

“From the beginning our mantra on this has been clarity, clarity, clarity. We must be telling a clean and useful story in a way that helps people understand what's going on,” Foreman told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday.

Foreman and a team of engineers and designers began work on the virtual environment a year ago. “I can’t tell you the number of ideas we’ve thrown out,” he said, adding, “Technology always must serve the story. This is not about just playing with toys.”

ABC News constructed a large theater-in-the-round set with rows of anchors and correspondents flanking Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, an LED floor showing the electoral map of the United States and a social media station for Katie Couric. But the network experienced its own Election Night nightmare when most of the set lights suddenly went out at 10:51 p.m. ABC was on a commercial break during the blackout. But when they returned at 10:54 p.m., the lights were still out, forcing Sawyer and Stephanopoulos to relocate to Couric’s station.

“In the universe of things that can go wrong, this is a big one,” noted ABC News president Ben Sherwood.

At 11:17 p.m., the ABC engineers were able to restore the set lights by funneling power from an upstairs floor. By 11:12 p.m., NBC News had called the election for Obama; CBS News followed at 11:15 p.m. and ABC News declared Obama the winner of the 2012 election at 11:23 p.m.

If the race ended much earlier than many political pundits had predicted it would, there were others who called it correctly. Standing in the CBS News master control room on Tuesday night, CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves observed: “It will be over by 11:30.”

Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarsiaGuthrie