Diane Sawyer, left, and George Stephanopoulos during election night coverage… (Donna Svennevik / ABC )
Fox News contributor Karl Rove ripped his network for predicting the winner too early. Some viewers thought ABC's Diane Sawyer was simply ripped. But TV's real winner of the 2012 election may have been … high-tech.
Four years after CNN's John King unveiled the "magic wall" touch screen to illuminate electoral stats, TV coverage of the voting results Tuesday night was transformed into a celebration of the almighty little tablet. Everywhere viewers turned, analysts and anchors were manipulating touch screens and pinching and pulling factoids and graphics like Tom Cruise in "Minority Report."
"I was struck by the amount of data that was available to the TV analysts with a touch of a finger," marveled Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media. "Chuck Todd at NBC could get the results of any county going back to 2000 — amazing."
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Technology has, of course, played a key role in political coverage for decades. In 1952, CBS used the UNIVAC — the first U.S. computer built for commercial use — to predict (correctly) that Dwight D. Eisenhower would win the election.
But this year — with millions of viewers accustomed to getting the latest news from tablets and smartphones — the networks went as tech-crazy as a gaggle of Silicon Valley geeks. NBC turned the ice-skating rink outside its New York headquarters into "Democracy Plaza," an interactive exhibit that showed the electoral map throughout the evening. CNN took over the Empire State Building to project color-coded results as they came in. ABC's Katie Couric monitored the social-media buzz, calling it "truly the first digital election."
NBC drew the most viewers overall for the night, with 12.6 million tuning in, according to Nielsen. On basic cable, Fox News was No. 1 with 11.4 million total viewers from 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern time (when many early results were coming in but President Obama had not yet been declared the winner).
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However, CNN pulled out a narrow victory over Fox (an average of 8.8 million versus 8.7 million) from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., which carried viewers through the president's acceptance speech. CNN also drew slightly more young-adult viewers than Fox News did — an encouraging sign for CNN, which has languished through record-low ratings recently.
Networks rapidly moved through the projected results for states during the 10 p.m. Eastern hour, which proved a little too much for Rove, a polling expert and former top adviser to President George W. Bush.
"We've got to be careful about calling things," Rove grumbled after Fox News predicted that Obama would carry Ohio, a key battleground state.
Rove's admonishment led Fox to dispatch co-anchor Megyn Kelly to the "decision desk," where analysts refused to back away from their projection.
Meanwhile, Twitter erupted when Sawyer, longtime anchor and former aide to President Nixon, slurred her words, referred to the commander in chief as "President Barack" and seemed to lean on her desk for support.
On Twitter, the mischievous pop duo They Might Be Giants, best known for their "Malcolm in the Middle" theme, wrote: "Diane Sawyer declares tonight's winner is … chardonnay!"
The anchor's PR rep later explained that she was "exhausted."
The interplay between TV and social media leads Adgate to predict even more integrated coverage for the next White House cycle.
"There is an abundance of outlets covering the news," he said. "However, political news and making accurate projections still helps to define the networks, both broadcast and cable. And since the results have been so compelling of late, I don't see any network not covering the 2016 election night. It could even grow even more as the potential for more streaming video grows."