With candidates working overtime to woo voters in a number of hotly contested midterm races that will determine control of the U.S. Senate, broadcast and cable networks are looking for their own competitive edge on election night by deploying several improved technologies.
Systems for handling and visualizing a deluge of data and votes will be particularly important. “The Senate is the big story this year,” says Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer. “With the changing polls and the closeness of some of these races, it is incumbent on us to figure out the best way to tell stories to viewers and put all the numbers into graphics so that people can follow along and understand what is at stake.”
That has translated into a number of major efforts to improve graphics visualizing the data. Fox, for example, has upgraded their touchscreen Bill-board system, so Hemmer can access more data.
Similarly, CNN has been working with Microsoft to completely reprogram its Magic Walls, which will be used once again by John King to analyze the results. The network has also created a “Magic Wall” experience for users of its digital platforms, explains Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief for CNN.
At 30 Rock, John Lapinski, head of the Elections Unit at NBC News says, “we’ve put a lot of emphasis on making sure that there will be a similar look and feel across platforms.” The network has also brought in a number of specialists to analyze the data on different issues and they’ve beefed up the count of election data experts who are working with the digital operations, which will supply more extensive data.
Rachel Rique, director of product and operations for NBCNews.com explains they’ve been focused on simplifying the presentation of the data so users can access it quicker and easier, adding that they’ve used responsive design techniques to improve the cross-platform experience. The site has also worked to improve the infrastructure for delivering results and data to TV and all their other platforms, says Shezad Morani, creative director for NBCNews.com. “Given the complexity of the election, we wanted to create a user experience that is going to be very fast,” he says.
One notable multiplatform effort will be CBS News’ Lean/Likely tracker for TV, online, mobile, social, radio and other platforms. “We are going to let viewers see CBS News making decisions in real time,” says Tim Gaughan, director of digital newsgathering and special events for CBS News. “It will come out of our Decision Desk and will let us pull back the curtain and provide viewers with a unique way of showing how the night’s races are being decided.”
Gaughan also notes that CBS will be moving its election headquarters into Studio 57, its largest space, in order to beef up their on-air coverage. They are also deploying more Dejero cellular-bonded backpacks in the field to allow for more video from around the country, both for TV and online streaming.
CNN, meanwhile, will have over two dozen reporters stationed around the country and will be removing the divider between its two Washington D.C. studios to create a larger space for the election, reports Feist. The network has purchased new equipment for the control rooms, including Sony’s top-of-the-line MVS8000X switcher, and new Vizrt graphics engines to display election results. Also, 11 cameras will be used in the über-studio.
Viewers will also see improved augmented reality systems at a number of networks. For example, CBS will be placing talent inside one such system to highlight developments in the Lean/Likely Tracker, and CNN has built an augmented reality version of the House and Senate that it will use to show how the battle for Congress is trending.
CNN will also be displaying its Election Night graphics on the Empire State Building, using its New York City control rooms to shift the lights at the top of the building to show how each party is faring in the battle for the Senate. “It will let us display our election results on America’s most famous building,” Feist says.
Streaming content will be very important for both the networks and local stations.
Candy Altman, VP of news at Hearst Television notes that they already stream all their newscasts and that the stations will be streaming all of their election night coverage.
In addition, they have done around 65 debates, which were also streamed, and provided extensive additional streamed video from the field. “Our ability to go live with backpacks is just phenomenal,” Altman adds. “We have increased the number of backpack units at our stations dramatically and it really increases our ability to go live on-air or to live stream various events.”
Many of the debates were also done with LiveWire adds Ernie Mourelo, director of digital content at Hearst Television. That allowed viewers to access a live feed as well as analysis and commentary from the Twitter feeds of reporters and experts. “It lets them not only watch the debate but engagement in a discussion of what the experts are saying as well,” he says.
While the digital platforms are providing them with ways to deliver much more political coverage than ever before, they are something of a double-edged sword. Even though the station group has been in a larger number of debates, Altman says, “we’ve had to push harder this time around. When you get a lot of incumbents it is particularly difficult. In this day and age, one gaffe gets you on Facebook and Twitter and you go viral. So I think there is a lot of reticence on the part of candidates to do anything that takes them off message….The digital world has really changed the fear factor.”
“So our goal,” she adds, “has been to find ways to break through the very programmed message candidates have.”
To help with that the group has been airing at least 12 minutes of political coverage each day at all of its stations and they regularly produce stories analyzing the veracity of political aids, both in alliance with PolitiFact and on its own.
The group is also trying to produce various segments, both for on-air and digital that are designed to help viewers get to know candidates better. By the end of September it had produced over 360 “In Their Own Words” segments where candidates talked about their views and answered questions. This material is posted online, though some makes it on the air.
“As opposed to having an initiative that is then put on digital, this is a digital initiative first that can be put on-air,” Altman says. “It’s another example of how we are working to integrate TV and digital.”
Whenever possible, they’ve also tried to do segments with candidates at local cafes or over dinner with voters. “We just want to get them away from their handlers and talk to real people to break through those programmed messages,” she says. “But it becomes more and more of a challenge to engage them and get them to participate.”