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With The Remote

Tuesday night will bring a landslide of coverage,but only some of TV's canidates are worth watching

November 02, 2008|By David Zurawik david@ | David Zurawik david@,zurawik@baltsun.com

It has not been a good year for prime-time TV.

Few of the new fall network series look to be a breakout hit, and viewing is down across the board for returning series on network and cable.

But it is a totally different story when it comes to politics and television. Record after record has been set in the size of audiences, starting in January with the Iowa caucuses and continuing with primary night coverage, national conventions and debates on all channels.

After more than two decades of declining audience interest in TV coverage of presidential politics, suddenly this year, Americans can't get enough of it.

And once the cable channels and networks figured out that there was ratings gold to be had in TV politics - especially with young adults who told pollsters they were spending up to one-third of all their TV viewing watching the candidates - industry executives have responded with more coverage.

Tuesday night will be historic on several levels. The country will have its first African-American president in Barack Obama or its first female vice president in Sarah Palin. There will also be more TV outlets offering more election-night coverage than ever.

From Jacque Reid on TV One to Katie Couric on CBS and John King on CNN, here is a guide to help you navigate the election-night landscape.

For the state-by-state battle ...

On Cable : Nobody has done it better than CNN this election season thanks in large part to correspondent King and the widely celebrated Magic Wall, CNN's touch-screen map of the United States that King works like a surgeon dissecting the electorate down to the precinct level.

CNN has even more whiz-bang technology for King to work and play with Tuesday, including a three-dimensional, 6-foot-long virtual model of the U.S. Capitol that will be used to illustrate changes in the House and Senate.

And get this: CNN will use hologram projection to "enhance" interviews with remote correspondents.

Through the use of 360-degree cameras, the image of a correspondent, say at Obama's headquarters in Chicago, will be "transported" to the newsroom in New York to chat with anchors Wolf Blitzer, Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper. (This, I have to see.)

But beyond the clever use of new technology, CNN was the first on the ground with the largest army of correspondents in Iowa - straight through to the conventions: Dana Bash, Suzanne Malveaux, Candy Crowley and Jessica Yellin are the mostly unsung heroes of CNN's early dominance in TV election coverage. They will all be back along with such fine analysts as Gloria Borger, Jeffrey Toobin and David Gergen.

This is the place that gets it first and gets it right with a minimum of ideological baggage - and where viewers can be just a little dazzled by King.

On the Networks : ABC has consistently been the highest-rated network in election specials and reports, and that is a result of the solid job it does in fact-based reporting, with Charles Gibson in the lead. But CBS News, led by Katie Couric, has been the most aggressive network news operation since the conventions, and it comes into election night with the most energy and momentum.

CBS was the first to announce that it would expand its nightly newscast tomorrow from 30 minutes to an hour, a hugely complicated move since network affiliates own the time into which CBS News is expanding. But now, ABC and NBC have followed Couric's lead, and the real winners are citizens looking for more last-minute information before making the choice for president.

Rick Kaplan, executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, says his team will go into election night looking "to cover the historical importance and perspective" of events. "After all, I can't remember in my lifetime - including 1968, which was one of the most tumultuous elections ever - a moment when our country was facing the kind of extraordinary economic crisis it now faces on top of being engaged in two wars.

"This is a night for hard information and real election results and analysis. This is a night where a network earns its stripes," he says. "On election night, we're all on equal footing. Cables don't have it over the networks on election night, because we're all on rolling coverage. We have eight hours of unrestricted coverage, and it's going to be a historic night no matter how it turns out."

Global attention : Numerous international perspectives on the election will also be available Tuesday night to U.S. TV viewers. The one not to miss: the BBC global broadcast, U.S. Election Night, which will air on the BBC America cable channel. Co-anchors David Dimbleby and Matt Frie will be joined in the studio by former ABC anchorman Ted Koppel for what the BBC calls "big-picture perspective and global analysis."

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