Election selection Some like it smart, some like it tart, some just like Bart

November 03, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

A "viewing party" on PBS. Morning talk-show hosts at the NBC anchor desk. Phil and Vladimir on CNBC. And Dan on CBS asking viewers to please call the 800 numbers and talk, talk, talk.

been a watershed year in TV election coverage, with candidates moving away from the evening news to cable and network talk shows. And viewers will see more change tonight with the most ambitious lineup of election-night coverage in TV history.

One of the greatest departures from tradition will involve PBS. Starting at 8 tonight on MPT (channels 22 and 67), PBS will offer "The Finish Line" instead of the traditional "MacNeil/Lehrer" coverage.

"It's going to be like a big viewing party," said Steve Atlas, co-producer of the show for WGBH-TV in Boston.

Hodding Carter and former ABC News correspondent Ken Walker will preside over the live, three-hour PBS telecast. Scheduled guests include National Public Radio's Daniel Schorr and Terry Gross, Harvard political scientist Robert Reich and syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman.

Perhaps most interesting is where the PBS "viewing party" will be finding its election news.

"We'll have monitors in the studio, and we'll be watching the other networks," Atlas said. "When something happens, we'll tell viewers, saying something like, "ABC just called New Hampshire for Bush." We're going to do it unabashedly."

Atlas acknowledged that it might sound like PBS is trying to do a non-satirical imitation of Comedy Central's critically acclaimed coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer, but he said "The Finish Line" will be different.

"We are not going to trivialize or make light of this great American rite of passage, election night," he said. "We are going to offer a qualitative instead of quantitative analysis . . . and have some fun."

The harder-edged analysis of "MacNeil/Lehrer" will not show up on PBS until 11 tonight because of the show.

Cable's Comedy Central, meanwhile, will bring back Al Franken, Roy Blount and the rest of the crew that covered the conventions for a night of satirical coverage starting at 7:30 p.m. They, too, will use the networks for election results.

"You'll get all the same, dry statistical information that you'll get from ABC, CBS and NBC, only you'll get entertained as well," executive producer Billy Kimball said.

Elsewhere on cable, the most thoughtful and thorough coverage will likely be found on CNN and C-SPAN.

CNN will offer 13 hours of continuous, live coverage, starting at 4:30 this afternoon with "Inside Politics '92," featuring Catherine Crier and Bernard Shaw. A special edition of "Larry King Live," the show that made more news than any other this political year, follows at 5 p.m. Full-tilt election coverage from a brand-new set in Atlanta starts at 7 p.m.

C-SPAN's coverage starts at 6:30 tonight with the call-in format it was doing well ahead of the others this year. Starting at 8 p.m., C-SPAN will whip around the country to key congressional races, as well as to its headquarters for the three presidential candidates.

As its idea of what election night coverage should be, CNBC is offering Phil Donahue, Vladimir Pozner and an 800 number for viewers to call,starting at 9:30 tonight.

While Kimball and others at the cable channels are saying that traditional broadcast networks all offer the "same, dry, statistical information," there are different ideas among ABC, NBC and CBS, too, about how election nights should be covered.

It's true that, for the first time in a presidential election, all three networks and CNN will use the same exit-polling data gathered by the Voter Research and Survey consortium, which they formed in 1989 as a cost-cutting effort.

But, as ratings for the debates and debate analysis suggested, viewers have noticed the difference between coverage on ABC vs. that on NBC and CBS. Viewers have overwhelmingly chosen ABC for their political coverage this year.

Peter Jennings and David Brinkley will co-anchor ABC's coverage, which starts at 7 p.m. In addition to the likes of Cokie Roberts, Jeff Greenfield and Jim Wooten, ABC will have analysis from Sam Donaldson and George Will, as well as Pierre Salinger reporting from London on international reaction to the election.

In an effort to close the gap between ABC, NBC and CBS will try some new talk wrinkles.

NBC will have Bryant Gumbel co-anchoring with Tom Brokaw, and Katie Couric will share billing with John Chancellor, in an attempt to bring some of the morning talk-show success of "Today" to the network's nightly news operation.

NBC's coverage will also start at 7 p.m., but Baltimore affiliate WMAR (Channel 2) will not start carrying it until 8 p.m., after "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!"

"We're not starting at 7 because nothing is happening then," said Arnold J. Kleiner, general manager. "Until the polls close at 8, there's really nothing to report."

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