Brow Beat

The Evolution of TV Election Coverage Technology

From UNIVAC to the will.i.am hologram.

Every election night, news networks are forced to contend with two seemingly contradictory problems: more information than they can possibly report and more time than they can possibly fill. For the last 70 years, anchors, reporters, and producers from rival TV networks have competed to air the best, most accurate (and entertaining) coverage. Here are some of the most memorable innovations in TV election night technology:

The Chalkboard (1948)

A chalkboard with vote totals.
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The contest between Truman and Dewey was the first election night ever televised in the United States. While the election ended in a shocking Truman win, the TV broadcast itself was relatively sedate, with three anchors seated at a desk in front of Life magazine covers of the candidates. Much of the coverage was radio-friendly, but NBC adapted to the new visual medium in a few key ways, including by displaying vote totals on chalkboards that were erased and updated throughout the evening. Though the chalkboards were pretty messy by the end of the night, NBC’s coverage remains a master class in the lost art of legible handwriting.

UNIVAC Calls It for Eisenhower (1952)

UNIVAC.
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In advance of the 1952 election, CBS tiptoed into the information age by buying a computer to predict election results and then ignoring its predictions. The network purchased a UNIVAC, one of the first commercially available computers, and commissioned a cutting-edge algorithm to project the electoral college and popular vote. Reporter Charles Collingwood provided updates on UNIVAC’s predictions from CBS headquarters while receiving dispatches from the actual room-sized computer in Philadelphia. Polls showed a close race between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, but UNIVAC’s early calculations predicted an Eisenhower landslide. Afraid of looking stupid by trusting their “fabulous electronic machine” more than human pundits, CBS decided to tell viewers a little white lie. “We fed him some figures which were a little out of the line of the sort of thing that he’d been expecting,” Collingwood explained. “And so UNIVAC came up and said he just wouldn’t work under these conditions.” CBS adjusted its algorithm and then predicted a much closer race. But they’d made a mistake in the numbers and, once it was corrected, the computer again showed a huge Eisenhower lead. In the end, UNIVAC’s prediction was almost exactly right, and the first Republican president since Hoover was swept into office. Later that night, CBS came clean: “We should have had nerve enough to believe the machine in the first place. It was right, we were wrong. Next year, we’ll believe it.”

NBC’s Plastic Electoral College Map (1976)

The plastic electoral college map.
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Though the first few decades of broadcast news saw many revolutionary changes (including the proliferation of color TV), by the 1970s, results were still communicated mostly through numerical returns and flat graphics of the electoral map. According to the Los Angeles Times’ Stephen Battaglio, NBC anchor John Chancellor wanted to try something different for 1976. Chancellor spoke to executive Gordon Manning, who came up with the idea for an enormous clear plastic map that could be filled in with colored gels as states were called for Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The political parties’ colors were assigned based on the British tradition—red for Democrats (after the Labour Party) and blue for Republicans (after the Conservative Party). NBC exiled Saturday Night Live from Studio 8H for three weeks to prepare for the election night broadcast, but discovered during rehearsals that the bright studio lights caused the plastic map to melt. NBC installed a cooling system before the big night and made the map a focal point of election coverage.

The Life and Death of the Voter News Service (1990)

1994 vote percentages for Pataki, Cuomo, and Golisano.
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After years of competing for the fastest exit polls and projections, ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN banded together to form a single exit-polling group, Voter Research & Surveys (later renamed Voter News Service), in advance of the 1990 midterms. The VNS served as a centralized pollster and decision desk, allowing every network to call races at the same time on election nights. But in 1994, much to the surprise of the other networks, ABC commissioned its own projection analysts and successfully scooped everyone else in a number of important races. In 2000, the VNS famously botched its Florida call. And after facing major technical difficulties in 2002, the VNS—and its spirit of cooperation—died out.

Tim Russert’s Whiteboard (2000)

Russert holding a whiteboard.
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Election night TV is crowded with prognosticators of all experience levels and political persuasions (CNN likes to make them all sit at a table and argue). And though advances in computing and statistical modelling have led to all kinds of new predictive insight, sometimes the simplest available technology is also the best. As early returns rolled in on election night 2000, NBC’s Tim Russert tallied the electoral math on a small whiteboard (which now sits in the Smithsonian). When the returns showed an increasingly close race, Russert jotted down three words: “Florida, Florida, Florida,” thereby Beetlejuicing the craziest election in modern American history into existence.

CNN’s Virtual Capitol (2008)

3D rendering of the Capitol.
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The next three entries on this list all come from CNN’s coverage of election night 2008, which was all-encompassing and spanned five dimensions (length, width, depth, time, and Wolf Blitzer). To help visualize the houses of Congress, CNN commissioned a virtual model of the Capitol building. CNN adapted the 3D model for subsequent elections and later perfected the form with myriad simulations of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

CNN’s will.i.am Hologram (2008)

The will.i.am hologram talking to Anderson Cooper on CNN.
YouTube

CNN’s most memorable technological advance of 2008 didn’t have anything to do with electoral returns. Throughout the night, the network hyped up its new “holograms,” which would allow anyone to have a realistic conversation with Wolf Blitzer or Anderson Cooper. Blitzer spoke to reporter Jessica Yellin and beamed in will.i.am from Chicago, where Sen. Barack Obama’s soon-to-be-victory party was underway. Of course, the absurdly unrealistic “holograms” were not holograms at all, but composite images made by dozens of high-def cameras in front of a circular green screen. CNN’s senior video producer later said the network added the fuzzy blue glow to make the “holograms” seem less realistic, in order to avoid future suspicion that realistic news footage might be fake.

John King’s Magic Wall (2008)

John King working the Magic Wall.
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John King debuted his magic wall of data 10 years ago, and other networks are still playing catch-up. King became an instant sensation for his touch-screen map of unprecedented geographic and demographic detail, as well as for the semifrequent technical difficulties and awkward pauses it created. Magic walls continue to be the real star makers of the election reporting business, from King to MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki.

NBC Brings Democracy Plaza Into the Future (2016)

A 3D electoral college map hovering over Rockefeller Center’s ice rink.
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Every two years, the major networks jockey for the best broadcasting infrastructure, but NBC has a built-in advantage no other network can claim: an ice skating rink. Since 2004, NBC has celebrated big elections by repurposing its Rockefeller Plaza headquarters into Democracy Plaza. That typically includes an electoral map of the United States drawn on its famous seasonal skating rink. In 2016, NBC took it to the next level with a virtual map that appeared to float above the rink. NBC has confirmed the return of Democracy Plaza in 2018, when it will presumably include a real-time rendering of the cast of This Is Us.