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TV's Election Lessons

3/07/2008 07:00:00 PM Eastern

It took Jon Stewart all of two seconds to go after Hillary Clinton last Monday on The Daily Show.

“This election is about judgment, tomorrow is perhaps one of the most important days of your life, and yet you have chosen to spend the night before talking to me,” the host asked Clinton via satellite.

Her response: “It is pretty pathetic.”

Perhaps not. It may be a leap to prove that Clinton's appearance had anything to do with her March 4 resurgence. But if she wins the nomination, her use of comedy shows, much more influential than in past elections thanks to YouTube, may be considered part of a turning point.

That's only one lesson—for candidates, commentators and comics—in this epic made-for-TV battle between Clinton and Barack Obama. Before it's over, there will be plenty of other takeaways:

Saturday Night Live Is Relevant Again: While a certain Justin Timberlake body part in a box made headlines, I can't remember the last time SNL approached the cultural weight of years past.

That all changed with one complaint by Hillary Clinton during last week's debate with Obama. When the Senator referenced the show's debate spoof about how the media is worshipping Obama, the show was instantly hurled back to importance.

The Great Wall of CNN: Tim Russert's famous dry-erase board on Election Night 2000 was all the NBC political chief needed to get his point across. This year, CNN's touch-screen wall is the must-have accessory.

If you haven't seen CNN's John King work his magic, either turn on the network or rent the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report. Either way, you'll want to own one two seconds later.

While King's ability to click and drag all over the place is just plain cool, the wall has steak behind the sizzle. Last Tuesday night it served as a useful tool, taking viewers through hypothetical outcomes, with one touch of a state on a map adjusting delegate counts.

Tone Matters: Each of the cable networks is struggling with tonal imbalances in its coverage. It's most obvious on MSNBC, where often-smug hosts Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews throw to the consistently all-business Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, a trio with credibility and class to spare.

It's old news that the cable networks have smartly gone to personality-driven fare in primetime. And Olbermann and Matthews are very good at what they're paid to do on their respective programs. But those personas can't just be tucked away on big election nights. Even when they're not acting smug, you often feel the next sarcastic jab is around the corner.

NBC News has by far the most extensive political coverage of all the broadcast networks thanks to MSNBC, which has seen great numbers throughout this election cycle. I just wish I didn't have to wade through the muck so often to get to Russert and the good stuff.

Networks Are Learning From Mistakes: This cycle has been so long that the networks have had ample time to hone their coverage. The biggest lesson came from New Hampshire. There's now barely a mention of exit polling as a predictor for who will win a primary.

The networks have also done their best not to get caught up in the horse race. One network chief told me before Super Tuesday that Obama would sweep the primaries until March 4, when Clinton could rebound. It was up to the networks to not buy into the perceived Obama momentum. I'm not sure any succeeded, but at least they were aware.

We may not learn the outcome of this race before the convention in August. Until then, the lessons will just keep coming.

E-mail comments to ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com

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