How Election Night TV Specials Turned Red, White, and Bananas

At this point, election night TV sets have grown so ludicrously overloaded with high-definition bells and whistles that the only truly shocking development would be a somebody reading returns off a piece of paper at a plain desk in front of a bare white wall.


Tonight is no different. The AP reports that, “NBC is dressing up New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, with the front of its headquarters lighting up in red and blue to mark the electoral progress of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and a map of the United States superimposed on the famed skating rink,” while their description of CNN’s plans includes the phrase “John King is back in front of CNN’s Magic Wall of data.” Yes, it’s shaping up to be another bewildering, eye-strain-inducing night in America.

But of course, what passes one year for sleek and cutting-edge will soon enough look comically dated.

Let’s kick it off with a couple of outtakes from this supercut of election night moments through the years collected from CBS, specifically. You can hardly see, it’s so low-def, but you can tell they’ve set up shop in what appears to be a disused soundstage from Lost in Space.

Maybe it looks to you jaded children of the 1990s that Walter Cronkite is reading off an old-fashioned “this is what’s for lunch” board but I’ll have you know those numbers move without sending a lower-level employee over to handle them manually.

Screencap via YouTube.
Screencap via YouTube.

Things had practically warped into the future for the 1972 election over at NBC. The effect? Somewhat like the inside of a Soviet power plant.

Illustration for article titled How Election Night TV Specials Turned Red, White, and Bananas

Make no mistake—while dated to our eyes, these sets were top-of-the-line stuff with no expense spared. The LA Times looks back:

In the early decades of network TV news, election coverage was the main source of bragging rights for CBS and NBC (ABC’s news division was an also-ran until the 1980s). They invested heavily in sleek sets that resembled the decks of aircraft carriers. Mammoth computers offering predictions before the polls closed received camera time to give the proceedings an air of futuristic wizardry. Vast sums of money were poured into polling and research as the pressure to call winners first was fierce.


Please enjoy this 1960 clip, via The Rachel Maddow Show, of NBC proudly introducing its first tabulation computers. “As soon as about only one tenth of the total vote is in, we are going to have what we call projections—that is estimates on what the final vote be in the popular, and then what the final vote will be in the electoral college,” a correspondent patiently explains this whiz-bang high technology. “The experts tell me to accomplish these equations humanly would take the work of 60,000 clerks.” 1960 was the year of the computer, the New York Times notes:

ABC’s Univac computer also predicted Nixon would win. As the night wore on and Kennedy’s edge became clearer, Richard Harkness of NBC boasted on the air that his network’s computer — an RCA 501, made by its corporate parent — had achieved a “truly amazing electronic coup” by predicting a narrow Kennedy victory. Twisting the knife into his network rivals, Brinkley told viewers that NBC’s computer was the only one “that has not at any time predicted Nixon would win — the others did.”


But basically, as one NBC News producer put it (via the LA Times), the whole affair was “a TV show about adding.”

Albeit, one where you could watch a young Barbara Walters in an incredibly alarming red room.

But it was a straightforward stylistic innovation that, perhaps more than anything else, launched the arms race that created the dizzying visual bonanza you’ll see on your TV tonight. That would be putting the state-by-state results on a giant map, flipping each one Democrat or Republican. Enter the red state/blue state era, which began with the 1976 NBC News broadcast.


The LA Times says it was the brainchild of exec Gordon Manning, and originally, the red and blue assignments were the opposite of what’s the custom these days:

NBC’s technicians and stagehands built a map with states made out of translucent white plastic. Lights with colored gels illuminated a state in either red or blue based on the results. The color schemes were based on the American flag and the rosettes worn by the members of British Parliament — Labour Party red for the Democrats and blue for the Republicans in honor of the Conservative Tories.

The 14-foot-high and 24-foot-long map took up much of the back wall of Studio 8H, which recently had become the home of “Saturday Night Live.” The sketch show, only in its second season at the time, was exiled to NBC’s studio located in the less-than-glamorous Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood for three weeks to make room for the preparations involved in the network’s “Decision 76” coverage.


“It’s enormous and it’s gorgeous,” anchor David Brinkley told his audience. (Can’t begin an election night without bragging about your latest toy.) “It was groundbreaking in that it was constantly on the screen,” said Manning’s son Douglas.

“Now we’ve become accustomed to seeing visuals crawling across the lower third of the screen and everything else that was going on. This was a first step. You could draw your own conclusion on how things were evolving without the anchors having to utter a word.”


From there on out, it was a question of piling on additional details, like a pair of German princes feuding via increasingly rococo palace refurbishments. By 1980, NBC’s “election center” looked like the movie War Games. Also, graphics had reached such a wonderfully advanced state that you could flip the year’s logo around while it zoomed at the viewer!

By 1988 computers were so powerful that they could reveal electoral counts like turning over a tarot card.

Thanks in no small part to Peter Jennings’ choice of suit jacket, the 1992 ABC election set looked like a Bond villain’s lair.

Eventually, of course, the 24 hour cable news channels leapt into the fray, upping the competition and ensuring that everyone went to greater and greater heights of WTF. This is perhaps best exemplified by 2008—the year of the hologram. “I want you to watch what we’re about to do,” teased Wolf Blitzer, “because you’ve never seen anything like this on television.”

Reported CNN on its own damn hologram,

It looked like a scene straight out of “Star Wars.” Here was Yellin, partially translucent with a glowing blue haze around her, appearing to materialize in thin air. She even referenced the classic movie on her own, saying, “It’s like I follow in the tradition of Princess Leia. It’s something else.”


Nowadays there’s so many layers of information on every frame it’s like trying to watch a damn Star Wars prequel. Is George Lucas directing? Is that why everything’s such so headache-inducingly dense with numbers and facts and figures and graphics and crawls?

Of course, these days the networks face bigger problems than where they’ll manage to cram in yet another set of numbers or how they’ll top whatever Westworld shenanigans their competitors deploy. The New York Times reports:

But as television news gears up for 2016’s big finale, an intense public distrust in the media is threatening the networks’ traditional role as election night scorekeeper.

There is a divided electorate, big segments of which are poised to question the veracity of Tuesday’s results. Donald J. Trump has refused to say if he will concede in the event of a projected defeat. And new digital competitors plan to break the usual election-night rules and issue real-time predictions long before polls close.

The era of Tim Russert’s famed whiteboard — when network anchors could serve as the ultimate authority on election results — has faded. And scrutiny on big media organizations on Tuesday, when 70 million people might tune in, is likely to be harsher than ever.


But what if it’s a really good hologram this time?

Senior Editor at Jezebel, specializing in books, royals, romance novels, houses, history, and the stories we tell about domesticity and femininity. Resident Windsor expert.


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My anxiety over this election has triggered stress-related food allergies, so I can’t even eat my feelings today. If I turn on the TV I may die. All I can come up with as an alternative to stuffing my face is NSFW, and I surely can’t do that all day.

Send halp plz