On TV, broadcasters search for a drama that never materialized

Around 8:30 p.m. on CBS, Scott Pelley announced that the network had called Wisconsin for President Barack Obama.

Pelley, the best anchor of the election night broadcasts, immediately signaled that this was the turning point of a night that had begun with networks cautiously treading water with all the crucial states too close to call, but ended with a cascade of victories for Obama and defeat for Gov. Mitt Romney.

Fox News was actually among the first to predict that the crucial state of Ohio had gone for Obama, and definitely the first to turn its coverage so firmly toward the future. But, in general, the speed with which the dominoes started to fall shortly after 10 p.m. seemed to take every news network by surprise. They had been predicting and preparing for a longer night of suspense.

"These are white-knuckle times," Candy Crowley had said on CNN earlier in the night. In the first hours of election coverage, all of the networks had to keep repeating one crucial truth: The critical states were all too close to call. At 7:30 p.m., an MSNBC demographic had shown the candidates just 6,000 votes apart in Florida, even as "turncoat" Charlie Crist, MSNBC's favorite former Republican governor, was predicting an Obama victory.

There was plenty of time, then, for Diane Sawyer on ABC to tread water with chirpy chatter of Obama's lucky basketball game and Romney's lucky milkshake, or for Fox's Megyn Kelly to offer a primer on how the calls are made, apparently in response to call-in viewers annoyed by the fine, Foxified art of prediction.

Yet the election shows had another problem when it came to maintaining drama through the night: There also was insufficient evidence of a Romney upset to really get the talking heads excited by the possibility of a real surprise. About 7:35 p.m., CBS found a little drama by reporting that Virginia had suspended vote counting — a consequence of so many people waiting in line. It seemed Virginia was emerging as the big story, one that Fox shrewdly kept going with its constant "Long Lines in Virginia" crawl. But Virginia, as things turned out, became moot.

As things started to break Obama's way, Sarah Palin said on Fox that she was "crossing her fingers," even though her grim expression suggested that she thought it would not go that way. "Patience, grasshopper," said an unusually Zen-like Laura Ingraham, also on Fox, implying she was speaking not just about waiting for the final results, but about awaiting a better Republican candidate. Bill O'Reilly, in somber mode even before it was fashionable on his network, but nonetheless dispensing some of the most accurate truths of the night, argued that the combination of superstorm Sandy and changing demographics had sunk the Romney campaign.

Over on MSNBC, Howard Fineman saw Texas Gov. Rick Perry as a guy for Romney to blame, given that Perry had pushed Romney to the right on the crucial immigration issue, which, Fineman suggested, torpedoed Romney with Latinos, a crucial demographic, it was agreed on panels all over the dial. Indeed there was much talk on Fox about changing demographics, with Tucker Carlson noting the decline in churchgoers.

On ABC and elsewhere, there was much talk of divides Floridian and apocalyptic divides American, and of the difficulty for either potential president of unifying the nation. Sawyer, though, cut through some of that nonsense by snapping that "difference is not a crisis," one of the best lines of commentary on a night forced to deal with a paucity of surprises and in the end, surprisingly little change.

 

cjones5@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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