It has not been a good year for prime-time TV.
Few of the new fall network series look to be a breakout hit, and viewing is down across the board for returning series on network and cable.
But it is a totally different story when it comes to politics and television. Record after record has been set in the size of audiences, starting in January with the Iowa caucuses and continuing with primary night coverage, national conventions and debates on all channels.
After more than two decades of declining audience interest in TV coverage of presidential politics, suddenly this year, Americans can't get enough of it.
And once the cable channels and networks figured out that there was ratings gold to be had in TV politics - especially with young adults who told pollsters they were spending up to one-third of all their TV viewing watching the candidates - industry executives have responded with more coverage.
Tuesday night will be historic on several levels. The country will have its first African-American president in Barack Obama or its first female vice president in Sarah Palin. There will also be more TV outlets offering more election-night coverage than ever.
From Jacque Reid on TV One to Katie Couric on CBS and John King on CNN, here is a guide to help you navigate the election-night landscape.
For the state-by-state battle ...
On Cable : Nobody has done it better than CNN this election season thanks in large part to correspondent King and the widely celebrated Magic Wall, CNN's touch-screen map of the United States that King works like a surgeon dissecting the electorate down to the precinct level.
CNN has even more whiz-bang technology for King to work and play with Tuesday, including a three-dimensional, 6-foot-long virtual model of the U.S. Capitol that will be used to illustrate changes in the House and Senate.
And get this: CNN will use hologram projection to "enhance" interviews with remote correspondents.
Through the use of 360-degree cameras, the image of a correspondent, say at Obama's headquarters in Chicago, will be "transported" to the newsroom in New York to chat with anchors Wolf Blitzer, Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper. (This, I have to see.)
But beyond the clever use of new technology, CNN was the first on the ground with the largest army of correspondents in Iowa - straight through to the conventions: Dana Bash, Suzanne Malveaux, Candy Crowley and Jessica Yellin are the mostly unsung heroes of CNN's early dominance in TV election coverage. They will all be back along with such fine analysts as Gloria Borger, Jeffrey Toobin and David Gergen.
This is the place that gets it first and gets it right with a minimum of ideological baggage - and where viewers can be just a little dazzled by King.
On the Networks : ABC has consistently been the highest-rated network in election specials and reports, and that is a result of the solid job it does in fact-based reporting, with Charles Gibson in the lead. But CBS News, led by Katie Couric, has been the most aggressive network news operation since the conventions, and it comes into election night with the most energy and momentum.
CBS was the first to announce that it would expand its nightly newscast tomorrow from 30 minutes to an hour, a hugely complicated move since network affiliates own the time into which CBS News is expanding. But now, ABC and NBC have followed Couric's lead, and the real winners are citizens looking for more last-minute information before making the choice for president.
Rick Kaplan, executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, says his team will go into election night looking "to cover the historical importance and perspective" of events. "After all, I can't remember in my lifetime - including 1968, which was one of the most tumultuous elections ever - a moment when our country was facing the kind of extraordinary economic crisis it now faces on top of being engaged in two wars.
"This is a night for hard information and real election results and analysis. This is a night where a network earns its stripes," he says. "On election night, we're all on equal footing. Cables don't have it over the networks on election night, because we're all on rolling coverage. We have eight hours of unrestricted coverage, and it's going to be a historic night no matter how it turns out."
Global attention : Numerous international perspectives on the election will also be available Tuesday night to U.S. TV viewers. The one not to miss: the BBC global broadcast, U.S. Election Night, which will air on the BBC America cable channel. Co-anchors David Dimbleby and Matt Frie will be joined in the studio by former ABC anchorman Ted Koppel for what the BBC calls "big-picture perspective and global analysis."
In addition to reaction to election results from the BBC's worldwide team of correspondents, the program will include commentary and analysis from comedy writer Ricky Gervais (The Office) and authors Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens. Talk about commentators willing to go where few others dare.
V-me, the Spanish TV network, will team up Tuesday with Grupo Latino de Radio, one of the world's largest Spanish-language radio operations, for live coverage that will air in America and throughout the world.
V-me's coverage will begin at 7 p.m. and be carried on Comcast 201, Verizon Fios 881 and Maryland Public Television's various digital channels. The coverage will also be available at DirectTV channel 440 and Dish Network channel 846.
For a laugh ...
Topical comedy shows have also enjoyed a major audience surge during the election - most notably Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and NBC's Saturday Night Live with Tina Fey's impersonations of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Both have done a brilliant job of offering daring and illuminating perspectives on the candidates and their campaigns.
The Daily Show reached an all-time high average audience of 2.1 million viewers a night during October - topping its previous record of 1.9 million viewers a night set in September.
Michelle Obama's appearance Oct. 8, the night after the second presidential debate, was the most-watched hour in the show's history with an audience of 2.9 million viewers - until Wednesday night, that is, when her husband's satellite chat with Stewart drew 3.6 million.
Virtually every major candidate during the election except Palin has appeared on Stewart's show this year.
While SNL having an election-night special might have been too surreal even for this remarkable campaign season, Comedy Central will offer Indecision 2008: America's Choice at 10 p.m. Tuesday. The live broadcast will be co-anchored by Stewart and Stephen Colbert, of The Colbert Report, which also drew its largest audience ever Wednesday when Colbert crossed over and endorsed Obama.
Stewart has achieved such prominence this campaign season for his humor and keen insights into politics and media that no election-night viewing can be considered complete without getting the comedian's take on events.
For the African-American perspective ...
With Obama as the first black presidential nominee of a major party, African-American viewership has soared during the campaign season. The Baltimore TV market, with one of the largest percentages of African-American households (27.1 percent), was No. 1 in viewing in the country for the presidential and vice presidential debates.
And so, the TV outlets that regularly program to that audience have been more important than ever during the election.
Tuesday night, TV One, the Maryland-based cable channel that reaches 45.8 million households nationally, will begin its coverage at 7. The same team that anchored coverage of the Democratic convention will be on hand - XM Satellite radio talk-show host Joe Madison, CN8 show host Arthur Fennell and Jacque Reid, correspondent for Tom Joyner's Morning Show.
Joyner will be providing commentary, along with Michael Eric Dyson and Roland Martin. Pollster Shawnta Wollcott will crunch the numbers provided by the Associated Press.
"TV One's mission is to celebrate African-American culture and chronicle African-American achievement, so it's only natural that we would bring our viewers the final chapter in Senator Obama's quest for the presidency," says Jonathan Rodgers, president and CEO of TV One. "Whether he wins or loses, this election will be a historic day for all Americans, and we're proud to bring our unique perspective to election-night coverage."
BET will be offering updates and voting information throughout the day Tuesday. From 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., Jeff Johnson will anchor coverage featuring correspondents Jina Johnson, Pam Gentry, Andre Showell and Sharon Carpenter. The channel will also have a team of analysts on hand.
Coverage will resume after 11 p.m. when a winner is projected.
For insightful commentary ...
As long as Jim Lehrer is at the anchor desk, PBS will always be an important election-night destination for me.
Lehrer's cast and crew, starting with syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks, who writes for The New York Times, provide several layers of analysis.
Then, there's Amy Walter of the National Journal's political daily, Hotline, and Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes the Rothenberg Political Report. And after journalism and politics, come historians Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith and Peniel Joseph.
"I'm old-fashioned - I believe in separation between fact and opinion," Lehrer says in explaining his core belief on the role of the press in a democracy.
"First, I'll tell you what happened. Then, I'll tell you the analysis of it. Then, I'll get you opinions from people to share. That's what it's all about. And when you cross those lines and you start blurring those lines, people don't know what you are and they don't know what to believe and whether to believe you at all."
You can believe in Lehrer on this once-in-a-lifetime election night.
at a glance
ABC: 7 p.m.- Charles Gibson and the most-watched news team for election coverage
BBC America: 6 p.m - David Dimbleby, Matt Frie, Ted Koppel and a worldwide team of reporters
BET: 9 p.m. - Updates, analysis and live reports with Jeff Johnson
CBS: 7 p.m. - Katie Couric leads the election team with the most momentum
CNN: 6 p.m. - John King at the Magic Wall with more tech toys than ever
Comedy Central: 10 p.m. - Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert offer an Indecision 2008 take of the vote
Fox: 6 p.m. - Brit Hume, Chris Wallace and a panel of analysts including Juan Williams
NBC: 7 p.m. - Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw bring authority to the anchor desk
PBS: 9 p.m. - Jim Lehrer, the dean of network anchors, with David Brooks commentary
TV One: 7 p.m - Joe Madison and Arthur Fennell anchor, with Tom Joyner commentary