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Nov. 8, 2016, 10:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

As seen on TV: For the TV-less viewer, live election night shows abound, on any number of screens

As “second screen” offerings from TV networks mushroom, online outlets are jostling for attention with live shows of their own.

You absolutely, categorically, without a doubt have not seen enough coverage of this election.

TV networks are expecting all-time highs in viewership on Tuesday night, the culmination of a presidential election cycle that has defied all expectations. (The standing record, according to Nielsen, is 71.5 million viewers across 13 networks watching the election of President Obama in 2008.)

Meanwhile, online outlets are doing their own takes on regularly scheduled election night TV programming. For many news sites hoping to draw viewers to their own livestreams, there will be comedians and musicians, actors and activists, and, for many live shows, a gaggle of high-profile guests.

Millennial-focused social publisher NowThis and Facebook are partnering for a 12-hour livestream hosted by comedian Jordan Carlos and NowThis politics editor Versha Sharma (who interviewed President Obama last week). Another millennial-grabbing site, Ozy, is hosting a free live event at beloved D.C. venue Busboys and Poets, with the help of additional Wired correspondents, and is working in collaboration with Facebook to put up a live show starting at 6 p.m. ET. It will be trying out everything from audience questions to quizzes to polls.

“We don’t only want to hear from politicians and politicos,” said Carlos Watson, CEO and founder of Ozy, who will be hosting Ozy’s show (the well-connected Watson himself comes from a TV background). “We’ll have musicians and writers and others on. The topics we’ll talk about are more raw. We’re going to talk about Black Lives Matter…I don’t think you’ll see too much of that on CNN or Fox or NBC.”

On plenty of election night online shows, of course, you’ll still see desks and hosts, and reporting from the field. There will be regular commercial interruptions.

buzzfeed-twitter-election-showBuzzFeed partnered with Twitter for an election night live show that starts at 6 p.m. ET and will trying to “call” states its own way, in partnership with the grassroots election reporting group Decision Desk HQ. It’s singling out its “calling” of states as a major differentiator.

“We’re making sure we’re doing it in a way that isn’t pretending we have special information or special room full of wizards analyzing things. We’re instead being totally transparent about why we think candidates have won one state or the other, and what the debate is among the nerds trying to figure it out,” Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, told me. “For example, there’s this very intense debate among very knowledgeable people about whether Trump’s margin in Waukesha County is big enough. We’ll be working with Decision Desk — they’re really great and deeply knowledgeable, but totally unpretentious.”

BuzzFeed’s Election Night Live on Twitter is brimming over with guests like basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as well as BuzzFeed talent and BuzzFeed brands: Regular segments will include “🔥 Tweets” and another “👀 on the media” (emoji use here BuzzFeed’s, not mine), with rotating hosts such as Tracy Clayton of Another Round and Eugene Yang, one of BuzzFeed’s “Try Guys.” Even Tasty, BuzzFeed’s behemoth Facebook food vertical, appears, in the form of recurring “Tasty Cheese Breaks.”

BuzzFeed brought on a TV producer to oversee the election night show, and to ensure quality. “We admire a lot of what happens on TV. The technical quality and tightness is really remarkable,” Smith said.

“But I think if you are a political reporter, news junkie, or politician, the news cycle is playing out on Twitter,” he added. “It feels really cool and right to be in the middle of that. It also allows us to play to a highest common denominator, to assume a pretty high level of engagement and sophistication around politics.”

Meanwhile, ABC News is continuing a partnership with Facebook from this year’s party conventions and election debates to livestream election night coverage, including a joint booth in Times Square. CNN is currently deep into its more than 100 straight hours of live election coverage, and will be taken over by a livestream starting at 4 p.m. EST on Election Day.

“Our digital coverage will be different, complementary, standalone. We will be doing lots of Facebook live that complements the coverage on all our platforms, but it’s not TV-like,” said Samantha Barry, CNN’s head of social media and senior director of social news, emphasizing the “not TV-like” descriptor. A separate Facebook live show, for instance, will include drone footage of lines at voting places (courtesy of CNN AIR, its new drone division) and dispatches from watch parties around the world (the livestream is centered around the broadcaster’s social media initiative #MyVote, involving CNN correspondents and a camper that’s been traveling around swing states and debate locations for the past couple months). “It’s going to be the perfect idea of a second-screen experience. We’re not doing a TV show on Facebook Live, or on any of our other social platforms. That’s something we’re really emphasizing. We have a livestream that people can go to for TV content, but what we do on social platforms will not be TV-like.” (However, CNN will be making the same calls at the same time, across all its platforms.)

“The TV look just doesn’t work for us on Facebook Live,” Barry said. She pointed to a vertical video the CNN team shot with Wolf Blitzer, in which the anchor describes what it’s like to call an election. In one of the outtakes, which will make it into the final video, he talks about how he doesn’t take the elevator on election night because he’s afraid it will get stuck. “It’s the same person, it’s the same story, but it’s a different format, different content, for a different audience.”

A few elements of the TV aesthetic of prepared hosts in a polished studio are worth using online, said Cenk Uygur, founder and CEO of the left-leaning network The Young Turks. The Young Turks found initial success in political commentary as a web series on YouTube and now has over three million subscribers there. On Tuesday night, TYT will be live on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter from 1 p.m. EST to at least 1 a.m., with an additional members-only stream from a second set at its Los Angeles offices, supplemented by other livestreams from its correspondents in the field on all three platforms.

“There’s nothing wrong with taking the best of all worlds. There’s a reason why people sit in a nice studio — people like to see nice studios! But they’re bored by teleprompters, because it looks like people are reading and are fake. So you can do a combination where you give news for this generation in a setting everyone is comfortable with, that looks good, but at the same time, substantively appeals to this generation by being more authentic,” Uygur said.


“Some just copy the old way, with boring anchors reading from teleprompters, which the online audience has no interest in — we don’t allow teleprompters at The Young Turks when we’re doing our live shows,” Uygur said. “Others just set up a camera in their offices and have people looking into it awkwardly, while other people mill around in the background. Which, by the way, is what Trump’s campaign was doing when they launched whatever it is they’re working on. Another school of thought is, in order to be different, you always have to be in the field. If you’re not under a Ukrainian tank, then you’re not interesting. There’s definitely value in that, but Ukrainian tanks get old, too.”

For its election night live show, TYT has dispatched two reporters each to cover Clinton and Trump, and reporters in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia (“because there’s a chance there will be shenanigans by people who want to intimidate minority voters,” Uygur said). A few dozen other producers, camera people, and editors will also be involved with the show.

A singular event like 2016’s Election Day is an opportunity for news organizations to concentrate resources on ambitious new projects.

“I love these big events because they allow us to display everything we’ve got,” Uygur said.

BuzzFeed’s show came together just in the past few weeks.

“I think we see it as very much an extension of the coverage we’ve been doing all cycle,” Smith said. “My view of how Election Day reporting works is: really definitive storytelling — Ruby Cramer on Clinton, McKay Coppins on Trump — and then really smart, funny live news. It’s those two extremes that really break through.”

Photo of the replica Oval Office at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library by Kim Davies used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 8, 2016, 10:30 a.m.
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