“What are we doing?” Stephen Colbert kept asking his producer as his 2020 election special on Showtime wound its way toward a chaotic conclusion.
In 2016, the late-night host’s live election special had felt a little like a wake for America as Colbert attempted to cope in real time with a country that had voted by a slim majority to elect Donald Trump as its commander in chief. It was surprisingly electrifying television. His 2020 special — which aired while America waited for votes to be counted, with no immediate end in sight — was much less electrifying.
Colbert was already filming in the midst of a pandemic, a performer who’s at his best when he has other people to play off of interacting only with a handful of people in the studio (most notably his wife, sitting off to his side) and then a variety of guests beamed in via videoconferencing software. Though he’s gotten very good at doing his show without a live audience laughing for every joke, the rhythms of an episode of late-night TV produced with Covid-19 safety protocols in place will always feel a little awkward.
But a newly revealed and even bigger challenge is that the era of live late-night election specials has largely been confined to the Obama and Trump administrations. The results of both Obama elections were known or almost certain by the time those specials launched in the 11 pm hour on the East Coast, and the 2016 election was clearly tilting toward Trump (if not over yet) by the time Colbert’s special aired. In 2020, the fact that results were going to be delayed — something that all of America had been conditioned to expect — didn’t really matter. The show had to go on because that’s what shows like this do.
TV abhors a vacuum, but the 2020 election, especially, occurred in a vacuum. Even once all of the votes are counted, the urge to fill hours and hours of airtime on election night and beyond will linger with viewers who thought they needed information and instead got a steady dose of anxiety.
This week’s nonstop coverage of the vote count has only served to underscore that election TV — both in late-night and on cable news — has long been broken. Maybe it should go away forever.
Cable news just isn’t equipped for an election whose results aren’t immediately clear
For weeks now, Americans have known one thing about the 2020 election: We probably wouldn’t know official results for days or even weeks after Election Day because holding an election in a pandemic means lots of votes arriving via mail, and some states wouldn’t count mail-in ballots until polls had closed.
But even if that simple likelihood hadn’t been discussed over and over and over again by politicians and pundits (here’s Bernie Sanders talking about it), a quick glance at recent history could have guided our expectations regarding when we’d find out who won. Of the five presidential elections of the 21st century before the 2020 election, only two — 2008 and 2012 — were called before midnight on the East Coast, and the 2000 election dragged on for over a month.
Even extremely recent history — which is to say, the 2018 midterms — took weeks to fully understand, particularly when it came to the extent of Democratic gains in the House.
It’s true that many elections of the TV era — roughly 1952 on — were called well before midnight on the East Coast. But those elections took place in a less polarized time, where landslide wins were much more common. In the 21st century, the ossification of Democrats’ and Republicans’ respective bases has led to electoral maps that largely look the same, with minor variations, in election after election after election.
And yet to watch TV coverage on election night — not to mention social media reactions to said TV coverage — was to watch a full-blown meltdown over the fact that nobody really knew anything yet, something that continued to play out across Wednesday and Thursday as all involved waited for official vote counts. In the case of Democrats, much of that meltdown was driven by Trump’s stronger-than-expected performance in Florida, a mirror of 2018 when Democrats’ early hopes seemed to have foundered on the shores of the Sunshine State before the overall picture ended up far rosier for the party.
Easy to say now, but imagine if MI and WI got called first, and then FL later.— Jonathan Tamari (@JonathanTamari) November 4, 2020
Would completely change the way everyone reacted to the news, and the way many are still reacting at this moment.
As of Thursday afternoon, an official winner still hasn’t been declared (though it seems likely that Joe Biden has won the presidency), and 24-hour cable news is still focused solely on the dribs and drabs of information seeping in from the handful of outstanding battleground states as the vote count crawls forward in Pennsylvania and Georgia, in Arizona and Nevada. Every once in a great while, a quick burst of information about the latest Covid-19 numbers will break through, but otherwise, it’s all election all the time. (The Covid-19 numbers have been bad! I don’t know if you’ve heard!)
The election results have largely been in the same holding pattern since midday on Wednesday when Michigan and Wisconsin were called for Biden, making his path to victory easier to see. So the cable news just keeps repeating the same information, even as MSNBC’s poor Steve Kornacki (the guy who does the network’s vote breakdowns on a giant map) looks as though he’s slept for maybe a half-hour since Tuesday.
A frequent narrative told about American presidential elections is that each successive one is “the most important of our lifetimes.” I think there’s truth to that during this period when Democrats and Republicans have such divergent visions of what America might look like. But the fashion in which cable news treats each presidential election like it is the only piece of news in a given year has created a uniquely terrible recipe that undervalues actual useful information and overvalues anything that might produce anxiety and/or dopamine hits.
As such, cable news faces the same dilemma that Stephen Colbert did on Tuesday night: It simply doesn’t know what to do with an election that occurs over several days, not several hours. You never know when the development that changes everything might arrive, so keep watching! Tuning in feels like clinging to a constantly unraveling rope, building and building and building tension without ever breaking. By the time a winner is finally declared, we’ll all be wiped out.
The “just keep talking until we know something” approach underserves viewers and creates endless amounts of anxiety
One of the biggest flaws of 24/7 cable news coverage in this moment is that it largely obscures the actual story of the election. And all week long, it has poked at what basically everybody knew would be the story going in. Counting the votes would take a while. We wouldn’t have results for a few days. But the demand for more, more, more led to a long election night and then, after the election, long days of single tea leaves being extrapolated into an entire plant without much thought given to how that approach might sway public opinion or how it might fail viewers.
For instance: Several networks — CNN in particular — used a light shade of pink to indicate states where Trump was leading but that hadn’t yet been called, and a light shade of blue to indicate states where Biden was leading but that hadn’t yet been called. And Trump was leading in, say, Michigan and Wisconsin on Tuesday night, and held that lead until the states’ largest urban centers were counted on Wednesday morning. For as long as it lasted, the pink hue of those states created unwarranted anxiety in Democratic viewers and unwarranted optimism in Republican viewers.
This is not a new complaint about cable news. On the whole, cable news is empty and sensationalistic, and it provides little information that is actually necessary except in situations where a story is truly unfolding at a rapid clip. (The terrorist attacks of September 11 are the most obvious example.)
But ongoing coverage of the 2020 election has highlighted just how little information there was to share in the immediate aftermath of the polls closing, and it has heightened the ultimate uselessness of increasingly vague talking heads waiting for something like real data.
The way the American media covers elections seems so deeply entrenched as to be unchangeable, but 2020 shows just how badly we need to rethink how television reports on them. The UK’s laws on how an election can be covered (which ban coverage while polls are open) might be a good starting point for finding workable reforms. There has to be a better way. By 2024, let’s hope we’ve found one.