By Laurence Lerman
History began Tuesday—good history, prideful history, the kind of history we want to look back on—Tuesday night, actually. Tuesday night, November 3, 2020, Election Night. And though the history that firmly took root that evening was optimistic, enthusiastic and thrilling, there wasn’t any in terms of TV viewership—according to Nielsen ratings, 56.9 million viewers tuned in to the country’s broadcast and cable networks, down approximately 20% from 2016’s viewership of 71.5 million. Is it possible that the jangled nerves of approximately half the electorate weren’t prepared to double down on more potential jangle? A poll could be taken, but they don’t appear to be all that on-target these days.
Stunningly, 2020’s historical Election Night—the opening salvo for a unblushingly nutty week—offered viewers an opportunity to take in the evening as extravagantly presented by TV’s two biggest cable news networks.
CNN and MSNBC had their all stars sitting at their COVID-era, socially distanced panels and all revved up at the opening bell. CNN had the deeper bench, with Anderson Cooper flanked on each side by David Axelrod, Gloria Borger, Van Jones and Republican whipping boy Rick Santorum, with Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Abby Phillip taking another long desk and Pamela Brown sitting at a third.
At MSNBC, under the aegis of ringmaster Brian Williams, the insightful trio of Rachel Maddow, Nicolle Wallace and Joy Reid were onboard to provide their interpretation and evaluation of the evening’s events. CNN also had its correspondents sprinkled across the nation—Miguel Martinez in Detroit, Kaitlan Collins in D.C., Sara Murray in Harrisburg and so on—at the ready for city-by-city color. Meanwhile, MSNBC seemed to rely more on local press affiliates for regional updates. Most memorable for me was one point when Rachel cut to Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts grinning and wisecracking, “If you’re Martha McSally, you’re breaking out the hard liquor about now,” an hour before Arizona’s incumbent Republican Senator was ousted by Democrat Mark Kelly.
But as early as an hour and change into the coverage, as so much of the commentary was of the “too early to call” and “here’s what they should be nervous about” variety (which isn’t a surprise as the sun had yet to set in the central states), the networks’ cameras panned away from the talk and focused increasingly on the nationwide visual breakdowns provided by their state-of-the-art interactive touchscreen maps. Staples on TV-news political coverage for years, they proved invaluable as ever, as were the network warriors who wielded them like samurai swords, razzle-dazzling onlookers with their high-tech pageantry. On Tuesday night, it was John King of CNN and Steve Kornacki of MSNBC, a pair that—little did we know—would dominate our screens and national consciousness for the next 72 hours.
King, CNN’s 57-year-old chief national correspondent, wearing a dark suit and spotted navy tie, and Kornacki, a national political correspondent for NBC, 16 years King’s junior, and sporting a white button-down with rolled up sleeves and a striped tie, each brought their own style to their respective interactive boards. King was easier-going and more coolheaded and comfortable in describing what he pointed at, clicked on and moved across his screen, the granular nature of the county-by-county breakdowns of a state like Texas (all 254 of ’em), notwithstanding. Kornacki, meanwhile, was the more emotional of the interactive guardians, quicker to exclaim something like, “Whoa, look at this!” or to digitally scribble down some electoral vote calculations on his Magic Wall.
As the evening progressed, the polls began closing, and the numbers began to trickle in with more regularity and speed, the commentators on the panel took more and more of a backseat to the boys. It became clear by midevening that the commentators were serving more as respites for King and Kornacki, who deservedly earned a breather every quarter of an hour and a sip of water before continuing their ceaseless interactivity. (Even while on break, Kornacki could be seen courtesy of MSNBC’s gently invasive “Kornacki Cam.”) After King and Kornacki, the most active onscreen player was Wolf Blitzer on CNN, who would walk across the studio floor—in front and past Pamela Brown at her strangely situated CNN “Voting Desk”—to address John King in front of his two screens (one being substantially bigger than the other).
At the height of the returns, when the numbers were coming in at their most rapid clip of the evening, K & K met the numeric challenge and matched their speed. At one dizzying point, the colors on their screens—state-shaped blues and reds and pinks and grays—were expanding and shrinking and shooting about in such a psychedelic rush that I felt myself flashing back to a liquid light display at a Zappa concert at the Fillmore in ’67.
If the majority of the commentators’ functions were to add color to the coverage of the proceedings, it definitely wasn’t necessary at that point, the networks’ artists having traded in their oils and paints for equally luminescent computer-generated images.
As the witching hour drew nigh and the tabulations gave way to predictions and projections, it became clear that the nail-bitingly close election was coming down to Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsyl-friggin’-vania; a quintet of states in search of the answers held in their cyclone of ballots—in-person, mail-in, absentee, provisional, military and so on. Counting them up is all that remained to be done and there was no more need for commentary as the Eastern portion of the country prepared to call it a night.
The lateness of the hour had no bearing on Donald J. Trump, who, at 2:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (technically, the morning after Election Night), would proudly reveal, without a note of irony, that he was his own favorite commentator. That’s right—at 2:30 a.m, whatshisname and his campaign held a press conference in the White House East Room and he feverishly spouted, “We’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop!”
He wants it to stop, he wants it to stop. At that moment, watching the Commander-in-Chief’s insane ramblings, an estimated half of the Election Night viewership was wishing for the same thing, just as the other half was yearnng only for the cessation of ranting from the blowhard on the screen. Perhaps it would cease the next afternoon. Or the day after.
And it would be HUGE.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.