Many high- tech returns TV: Vote tallies will be revealed with a twist as media outlets clamor for viewers, who seem to crave anything else.

November 05, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

With viewer interest in this election at an all-time, television-age low, the question is how the networks and cable channels plan to find an audience for tonight's coverage.

At CBS and ABC, the answer is computer-generated bells and whistles with lots of talk about "virtual set technology" and "touch screen interfacing" -- talk that stops just short of promising viewers they will see the flying cows of "Twister" whizzing past Dan Rather and Peter Jennings as the exit poll data gets chewed to a prime-time cud.

"I'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to obviously look at the ratings both for the conventions as well as the debates," said Steve Jacobs, executive producer for special events at CBS News. "The debates were down 40 to 50 percent from where they were four years ago.

"But the graphics this year for election night -- not just at CBS but everyplace -- are so much better than they've ever, ever, ever been before that I think it will make a difference with viewers," he said. "The television audience, which now goes to movies and has these multimillion-dollar spectaculars with special effects, sort of expects that of us now. And that's some of what they will get on election night."

Not that there won't be other choices for viewers. In fact, with the new outlets such as Fox's cable news channel and all the niche operations, including as MTV News, offering election coverage, there will be more choices than ever.

And they won't all be playing minor variations on the same theme. CNN, for example, is positioning its wall-to-wall coverage in clear opposition to the high-tech razzle-dazzle promises of CBS and ABC News.

"What I would emphasize in our case is the journalism of reporting election night," said Steve Haworth, a vice president with CNN. "We are always trying to make our coverage more appealing to viewers. But the overwhelming objective is to make it the most informative. Whenever you start talking in news about 'virtual' anything, I start to get nervous."

Haworth urges precision when talking about technology and election coverage.

"In terms of the technology that brings you voter election statistics and exit polls, we're all pooled anyway, so we will have every bit the same quantitative data as the other networks," he said, referring to the fact that most television outlets subscribe to the same Voter Election and Statistics service.

The only difference will be in how fast each network or channel puts those numbers on the screen and how they crunch them for projections and analyses. That's not technology as much as it is expertise and judgment.

Another kind of technology involves gathering voter and candidate reaction, and reporting it live. Haworth said CNN is invested heavily in satellite technology that will enable it to go live tonight to 50 locations around the country. NBC News, which will simulcast with MSNBC tonight, is also stressing the reach of its coverage in press releases. Calls to the network news division were not returned.

What CBS and ABC News are promoting as breakthrough technology is mainly a matter of cosmetics.

"Touch screen" technology means that Rather and Jennings will have at their fingertips miniature versions of the brightly colored maps of the United States that the networks have used for years to show projected and confirmed winners and losers at a glance. The anchormen will be able to press icons on their miniature maps and instantly call up data on any race anywhere in the country.

Outside of looking colorful and trying to give the impression that Rather and Jennings are all-powerful, it is unclear what real function touch-screen technology will serve for viewers.

For his part, Jacobs says it will mean much faster information for viewers.

"It used to be in years past that if Dan Rather wanted to get the Presidential results in Maryland, he'd have to ask a producer, and the producer would have to then ask the control room, and the control room would say, 'Yeah here it is.' It would be a chain of telephone basically," Jacobs said.

"Now, at 8 o'clock when the polls close in Maryland, if Dan Rather wants a vote total in Maryland, he just puts his finger on the touch-screen map of Maryland, and bingo, bango, bongo, it's instantly on the screen," Jacobs explained.

But in reality, it is not so much a matter a speed as it is a question of who controls the bingo-bango-bongo. Most of the other major networks will have a team of about half a dozen producers trying to nail trends and story lines in the Presidential and congressional races, who will then alert the anchorman to focus on the races they have selected.

One might question the wisdom of letting Rather -- who already has interview and anchor duties -- take on the added responsibility of trying to figure out the big stories and essentially direct the network's coverage by the seat of his pants.

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