Oh, What a TV Night!
To be classified as a media event, television programming must satisfy certain criteria:
(a) It must either run in lieu of or “break into” regularly scheduled programming on every major TV network.
(b) It must be live and, in some sense, unpredictable.
(c) You must forever remember exactly where you were while viewing it.
Media events don’t happen too often — probably only one or fewer per year. Columbine, the start of the Gulf War, and OJ’s car chase are just a few examples.
But last night’s media event was different. We weren’t drawn to the tube to watch horrific things happen to people (well, not exactly). Instead, 54 million Americans watched democracy unfold in the most exciting election in recorded history.
From as early as Tuesday afternoon, MSNBC, CNN, and the rest of the news outlets were gearing up for an Election Night that promised excitement. With the polls showing Gore and Bush in a near dead heat, no journalist really knew quite what to expect.
But even Confucius himself couldn’t have predicted what was to come. Who would have known just how close the election would be, and, more interestingly, just how extensively the networks would be shaping the election. And that’s what made this night so unique: the media itself was just as captivating as the election.
Here’s a brief recap of why Tuesday, November 7, 2000 deserves to go down in the television record books.
At approximately 9 p.m., all of the major networks announced that Gore had won Florida. Then, at 9:58 p.m., CNN reclassified Florida as “too close to call.” The other nets soon followed suit. Bush fans rejoiced at this media blunder.
For the next several hours, the election was a seewsaw nail-biter. Bush up, Gore up, Bush up. The Florida gap gradually narrowed, as a nation awaited resolution.
Nearing delerium, MSNBC’s Brian Williams commented on the length of the tallying: “Babies have been born, people have died and been buried.”
2:17 a.m. All news bureaus claimed that Bush had taken Florida, and had won the presidency. Fancy graphics came onto the television screen: “George W. Bush: the 43rd President of the United States.” Cameras showed cheers from Austin, Texas, boos from Nashville.
NBC’s Tom Brokaw and co-anchor Tim Russert were just chatting and ad-libbing, awaiting Bush’s acceptance speech.
Minutes went by. The commercials stopped because there was no more airtime to sell. It was that late. And America was that tired.
Soon Brokaw got a message in his earpiece from election officials in Florida, essentially reporting that the Bush-Gore popular vote gap had narrowed to just over 500 in the state.
Minutes later, all the nets retracted their projections, again.
Russert pulled out his dry erase board and marking pen, almost devilishly writing “Florida” on it three times. Technicians and camera people laughed hysterically in the background, probably because everyone realized just how absurd things had gotten.
Brokaw chewed on crackers to rejuvenate. He and Russert, already nearing unprofessionalism, got increasingly giddy. Quite frankly, they just didn’t know what to say.
And what could they say? The sun was about to rise, their network had majorly misinterpreted results twice, and there was still no president-elect.
At one point during the night, CBS anchor Dan Rather declared, “Turn the lights down. The party just got wilder!”
It sure did, Dan. America realized how wild a close election could be. But we also saw just how wild you and your colleagues could be when placed in the midst of a media event.
Archived article by David Kaplan