There were more channels and more technology than ever brought to televised election coverage last night, but that didn't produce much of the new and improved coverage the networks have been promising.
In fact, the newest network outlet -- the Fox News Channel -- was laughably inept in its effort to provide even basic coverage. Early on, technical problems foiled its attempt to go live to Bill Clinton's campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Ark.
CBS, the old-line network making the most technological innovations and the biggest promises, was just as bad in its own way -- from those weird overhead shots of Dan Rather's disembodied finger pressing his touch-screen map of the United States to poor Harry Smith looking like a rookie local weatherman as he pointed at charts and maps he couldn't see in his "virtual set" studio.
The best coverage was on CNN and NBC. Both stayed with a tried-and-true formula: a strong anchor flanked by solid experts and a commitment to satellite coverage for live reaction and analysis from around the country.
One of the most refreshing moments in the cacophony of video voices speculating on the meaning of early returns in congressional races came in an exchange on CNN between Frank Cesno and Bruce Morton.
"Can you see any trends in these early results?" Cesno asked Morton at about 8 p.m.
"No, not really," Morton said. Anyone who said he had a trend nailed at that point was deluded.
What CNN could offer, though, was an anchor desk of Bernard Shaw and Judy Woodruff flanked by experts Ken Bode and Bill Schneider, who delivered interesting insights whenever Shaw asked him "to take us inside the numbers" of his exit poll data.
He could point out that Clinton received a surprising amount of support from Catholics in some eastern states, or that another 2 percent of the white vote in North Carolina would have enabled Harvey Gantt to unseat Jesse Helms.
NBC did not have the expertise to compete with Bode and Schneider. The network put only Tim Russert at the anchor desk with Tom Brokaw. While Russert offered adequate analysis, he wasn't nearly as in touch with exit poll data as Schneider.
But Brokaw's presence and the network's commitment to satellite technology, rather than the razzle-dazzle touch-screen and "virtual-set" bells and whistles of CBS, served NBC well.
The clearest comparison came when CBS and NBC both chose to highlight Georgia.
CBS showed us Rather's finger touching his map several times before the screen flipped to show us the early vote totals, which were meaningless at that point.
NBC went to a live interview with Georgia Gov. Zell Miller. He offered valuable insights on the mood of the state, while Brokaw deftly questioned him in a way that compensated for the governor's Democratic bias.
NBC's only major miscalculation in terms of staging came with Brian Williams sitting outside at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. By 10 p.m., even Brokaw was mocking the set as "prom night on MTV."
The most serious journalistic flaw on NBC -- which was simulcast on the all-news cable channel MSNBC -- was its insistence on providing air time for MSNBC's Internet expert, Mary Kathleen Flynn, who had nothing to offer from the chat room she had set up with 50 or 60 viewers.
Before the simulcast started at 7 p.m., MSNBC didn't do much better than Fox. NBC's Andrea Mitchell, for example, had to TC explain to anchorwoman Ann Curry the difference between exit poll data and election results.
ABC's newsroom last night was again constructed mainly to be a stage for Peter Jennings, with his supporting chorus featuring Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson.
The three of them were on their feet most of the night, with Jennings walking all over the set, and it became so theatrical as to be distracting. ABC needs to move beyond its over-reliance on Jennings' good looks and charm.
But no one could top Fox last night for missteps. When it first tried to go to reporter Jim Angle at Clinton headquarters in Little Rock, the screen instead showed commentators Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes.
Obviously rattled, the network went to a commercial only 10 minutes into its coverage and then returned with half an hour of previously taped reports on congres- sional races. Other networks, meanwhile, were offering fresh exit poll data and analysis.
Fox opened its coverage by telling viewers how it was going to be better than all the rest. Anchors Catherine Crier and Mike Schneider promised they were not going to use the power of television to possibly disrupt voting by announcing winners before all the polls closed; at 9 p.m. they were announcing Bill Clinton as the winner just as everyone else did.
It was one of the few moments of competence on Fox last night.
Pub Date: 11/06/96