How to Watch Election Night Coverage, According to a Media Strategist

Let me start this conversation by stating, without reservation, that watching election night coverage will be as stressful as watching the campaign.

And that’s the way the TV media wants it.

They have carefully addicted their audiences to this campaign. They accomplished this by skewing their narrative and keeping their viewers at the edge of their seats – and wits – in order to wring every last drop of profit from their undeserved ratings.

They have made it a “close election.”

Expect more of the same on election night. Cable news programmers have a lot of hours to fill, and will be stretching every storyline to the point of torture to fill that time.

After living through two years of non-stop partisan bickering – like a Thanksgiving Dinner stretched over 15 months – you are about to spend an evening watching it all come to a close so that you can get on with the rest of your life.

How does one live through it?

Watching the election results will be similar to experiencing the stages of grief. There will be denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The media will fill the election night coverage with varying degrees of information, truthfulness, and entertainment. Before I begin to deconstruct the media coverage, let me acknowledge my view of the difference between journalists and media. Journalists report news; media exploits news.

The distinguished American playwright, Arthur Miller, in his brilliant, brief book, On Politics and the Art of Acting, said about the political press corps:


“The American Press is made up of disguised theater critics; substance counts for next to nothing compared with style and inventive characterization”

As we look at this election coverage, let’s remember when the news changed.

In 1977, ABC made Roone Arledge President of their failing network news division, adding to his job as head of the network’s very successful sports division. Arledge brought his sports model mindset to the news; Jim McKay’s line, “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat,” became ABC News’ ethos.

In broadcast sports, the cast of characters includes:

– The play-by-play announcer who provides the narrative of the game on site.

– The color commentator who provides expert analysis and background information to the broadcast from the booth.

– The sidelines reporter who provides live updates from the field on injuries and strategies.

– The studio host who provides an on-air personality in the studio hosting additional conversations with pundits or analysts

Think about this sports model as you watch the 2016 election coverage.

All of the networks have shiny new sets designed for 2016 election night coverage. Additional established studio locations have been appropriately decorated for the election and they will host other commentators with more large dazzling touch screens. Expect dizzying graphics packages with martial music worthy of the NFL, panels of strategists, commentators and personalities on sets two or three tiered deep, and all of them on their smart phones working the field for information when they’re not arguing for their candidate.

There will be endless discussions and interpretations of every tiny result as they change in the smallest way. There will be reporters in the field, from the voting booths to the hotel headquarters of each campaign. And, it will be exhausting.

Here’s my advice for navigating the night:

— ​Ignore early predictions unless the numbers are overwhelming.

— Watch the body language of the paid campaign surrogates:

— If they tighten their eyes, they are feeling the stress and probably don’t like the information they’re hearing.

— If they smile a lot and the numbers are in their favor, believe them, but ...

— If they smile a lot and the numbers are tight or are going against them, they are spinning and I urge you not to believe them.

— Remember that the announcers, commentators and personalities are working to keep you fixed in your chair and watching.

— Take a break, get out of your chair, drink water, breathe – it will all be there when you come back to the screen.

— It won’t be over until the all the votes are counted ... if then.

So what are we to do moving forward? This past weekend’s Sunday Show discussions have all acknowledged that on November 9 we are going to be as divided as we are today. As long as there is a profit in our division, one can count on this media environment to exploit it.

If we are to come together as a nation after this most contentious election, we will need to establish new ways to communicate with each other about our differences. No matter the outcome, we need to be more involved now than ever. Media needs to be held accountable by us, their customers. If we want a media to return to journalism and dial back their exploitation, we all need to demand that of them now.

And most important, if you haven’t voted and you are reading this – vote now. If you have voted, call all of your friends and make sure that they vote. All of our futures depend on it.