Trial by endless ordeal
Florida's local-TV-news sites earn their stripes in election coverage
By Russell Shaw -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/3/2000 7:00:00 PM
A bug-eyed vote counter staring into a magnifying glass may not be great television à la The West Wing, but what he saw through the glass has a big role in determining who will occupy the real West Wing come Jan. 20 and, thus, made for compelling viewing, particularly at election ground zero.
On a Florida holiday over the Thanksgiving weekend almost at geographic midpoint between the Palm Beach and Broward County courthouses, I periodically tore myself away from surfing the local Florida stations to see how they were playing this story on their Web sites. Plainly, this galvanizing story was a major test of local-TV-news sites' ability to present conflicting opinions and information in a thorough, balanced, timely and cogent manner.
None of the several local-station sites had a more complete suite of election news than NBC affiliate WPTV(TV) West Palm Beach. Though a little slow to load, the site (http://www.tcpalm.com) offered streaming video of Vice President Gore's remarks explaining why his campaign is contesting the certified election results in Florida.
Also on WPTV 's TCPalm site that weekend, a constantly updated, easily navigated Florida Recount special section provided staff-written updates on the five-front court battle and the move of the Florida legislature to go into special session to consider naming its own slate of electors, as well as feedback from station viewers and readers of the site's several newspaper-content partners.
Readers of this column may have noticed that I'm big on site navigation and organization of content into logical groupings. If you are new to the concept of Web-site navigation, think of an online equivalent of a smooth on-air segue.
TCPalm wins the content-organization battle, too. The stories on the Florida Recount main page were listed in order of their posting, the most recent first. On the main page, each received a one-paragraph summary, with a link to the page where the story was posted in full.
Unlike some national-election sites, where the results were difficult to find, TCPalm also provided clear links to vote-returns pages in most counties within the viewing area.
The Miami-Fort Lauderdale station sites acquitted themselves superbly as well. With a special mandate to cover the events in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, ABC affiliate WPLG-TV 's Click10.com offered several streaming-video clips, as well as a much needed Quick Update page with a bulleted series of summaries from all over the election front.
Click10.com also offered a lively discussion area, with several hundred postings from viewers aggrieved at the presidential candidates, Florida state officials, local vote-counters and-no surprise here-the media. There was even a lively discussion thread on "Voter Horror Stories," with a few viewer-posters talking about their difficulties punching the ballot all the way through and others responding contentiously.
Such dialogue is great, by the way. A Web site without lively dialogue from viewer-readers sells short the medium's potential for two-way communication.
As much as I might like to, I can't be as complimentary about Nbc6.net, the Web site for Miami-Fort Lauderdale NBC affiliate WTVJ-TV . On the day before Thanksgiving, the Florida presidential-returns margin cited was a Precambrian figure, even though the official 537-vote margin had been certified three days earlier. The Electoral College results map was two weeks old and didn't include the certification of Oregon for Gore.
Almost as bad, a streaming-video page with some sort of proprietary media-player interface was nicely designed but slow to load and buggy and wound up crashing my browser.
Memo to all sites with overeager Web designers: Think functionality, not pretty graphics. Build your streaming-video content so that it will render inside an existing media-player interface.
Russell Shaw's column about Internet and interactive issues appears regularly. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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