October 31, 2012

Election night flashbacks

It's Halloween, and it's also less than a week until Election Day, so why not combine these twin horrors by taking a quick look at TV's election night coverage.

The first election night on television was 1948, the "Dewey defeats Truman" election, and in this clip from our friend David Von Pein, NBC TV, with John Cameron Swayze, projects Harry S Truman as the winner:

1960's election night was one of the most exciting in history, with the outcome in doubt until Wednesday morning.  Here's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley from NBC,  as John F. Kennedy goes over the top.  Note the early use of computers!

Not a whole lot has changed by 1968, except for color.  As was the case in 1960, Richard Nixon was the Republican nominee; and as with 1960, election night becomes election morning.  Nixon's battle with Hubert Humphrey was exacerbated by the third-party candidacy of George Wallace, who (unlike most third-party candidates) won enough states that he could have prevented either Nixon or Humphrey from winning a majority in the Electoral College.  And long before Tim Russert and his whiteboard, John Chancellor uses a legal pad to explain the results.

I loved those election night studios, looking like something out of Dr. Strangelove, their walls filled with tote-boards displaying vote totals from around the country.  That would begin to change in the 1970s.  The tote boards are replaced with computer-generated chyron graphics, often in groovy colors:

We're also beginning to see the giant electoral map that's become a standard part of election night coverage: 

ABC in 1976; blue for Democrats, yellow for Republicans
Interestingly, in 1980 both NBC and CBS used blue to designate states won by the Republican candidate. This makes sense; blue has traditionally been used for conservative parties worldwide, and one would think that the United States would be no different.  ABC, on the other hand, had switched from yellow to red for the Republicans (see below), while retaining blue for the Democrats.  You'd think that two would outnumber one, but since ABC had become the industry leader in news, red it would be for the Republicans. - and so it has remained, becoming such a part of the nomenclature that I doubt you'll ever see it change now.

ABC in 1980; three candidates, three colors.  They were the only
ones who used red for the Republicans, but since ABC led in the
ratings, theirs was the one that counted.
1980 was the first presidential election I voted in, so it's always been a special year for me.  It was controversial as well, with networks releasing exit poll information throughout the day, even though the polls were still open.  This wasn't going to be a close election, no sir. And thus we have the stunned John Chancellor, at 8:15pm ET - just 15 minutes after many polls in the East had closed -projecting Ronald Reagan as the next President of the United States.  As if that weren't bad enough, Jimmy Carter conceded defeat before the polls had closed in the West, enraging Democrats who felt they lost their own elections because voters heard the results and didn't bother to come out.  Somehow I don't think it will be that early this year.

By 2000, network coverage had reached heights of sophistication that the anchors of the 50s and 60s couldn't have imagined.  And yet it took Russert and his whiteboard to explain how the vote might turn out.

A week from today, we should know how the 2012 election has turned out, and whether or not TV's coverage has created new memories for future historians.  But if you're in the mood for something completely different, here's one idea as to how election night should be:

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