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TV review of election coverage: Really, 'Star Wars'?

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CNN's Anderson Cooper is visited by the hologram of R&B past,, during the news network's gimmicky coverage.


Along with "Change," the big theme during Campaign 2008 was one of disbelief. Here was a just-when-you-thought-you'd-seen-it-all brand of amazement, voiced over and over, even by seasoned political observers.

No wonder TV was a great way to follow the race to the White House. There was plenty to see, even when you thought you'd seen it all.

Then came Election Day, when TV news outlets chased the story to its natural, long-awaited conclusion.

But after so many months, the networks' video razzmatazz and teams of analysts couldn't hide an enduring truth Tuesday night: There are few things that make for more anxious TV viewing than waiting for election results.

When Barack Obama addressed a gathering that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, nothing that preceded it really mattered. As a TV spectacle, it upstaged the coverage that had led to it.

Obama's soaring rhetoric, and the mass excitement that surrounded it, was an instant TV classic.

But until 10 p.m., when he was projected as the next president, the networks faced the formidable challenge of sifting through reams of preliminary numbers, and playing host to a lot of talk.

And, just as any other Election Night, the networks had to make all that talking and all those numbers look compelling.

Perhaps the most novel attempt to jazz things up (which managed to be both effective and hilarious) was CNN's "hologram." Wow! From Chicago, correspondent Jessica Yellin seemed to materialize, in 3-D, in CNN's New York election center to chat with anchor Wolf Blitzer.

It's a cool technique for bringing people in remote locations into the same environment, and will likely become commonplace in TV coverage -- a fancy update of the split screen.

But it seemed to be an innovation with a nod to "Star Wars," a parody of the holographic image of Princess Leia. Even Yellin acknowledged the resemblance.

As visual wizardry goes, MSNBC was slightly more old-school with its virtual-reality rotunda. There, 3-D bar graphs rose from the "marble floor" alongside the correspondent, or an electoral map appeared to be hanging from the "columns" in the background.

Going all-out is a TV news tradition, since at least 1960. That year, NBC transformed Studio 8H (now home of "Saturday Night Live") into a vast election center, with anchors David Brinkley and Chet Huntley presiding over dozens of correspondents and banks of numerical displays.

Though impressive in scale, the coverage (which can be glimpsed on YouTube clips) had no holograms, nor any reference to red or blue states (for one reason, it wasn't aired in color yet).

Nearly a half-century later, outside NBC's headquarters, an enormous U.S. map spread across the famous ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center. NBC used it to illustrate the states as they were claimed by John McCain and Obama.

But unlike four years ago (when red or blue puzzle pieces were laid on top of the ice), for NBC's coverage Tuesday night, each state was sprayed with water and frozen into place.

It seemed an unintendedly reassuring change, reflecting an election where the outcome was unlikely to be questioned or disputed.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on November 4, 2008 11:51 PM.

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