Election Coverage Grades: B’s for MSNBC & FOX, CBS C-

From CNN to Comedy Central, a review of television’s midterm madness

If Jon Stewart’s “Rally for Sanity” was successful, the success was short-lived. On election night — and particularly the cable-led coverage of it — the insanity returned.

The major broadcast and cable networks (and Comedy Central) devoted a combined 40-plus hours of coverage to the midterm elections on Tuesday.

Also read: Hollywood's the Solid Winner in Mid-Term Elections.

With no electoral college to worry about, the midterms should, in theory, be easier to follow than the general presidential election. But the overload of numbers, statistics, real-time-updated polls, holograms, interactive walls (CNN’s “Election Matrix”!!!) and competing chyrons make it a cornea-challenging event. (Most of the election night broadcasts should have come with a warning for epileptics.)

Here are some of the highlights and lowlights, network-by-network, along with their all-important election night coverage grade.


“The Place for Politics/Lean Forward,” 6:00 p.m. – 6:00 a.m.

MSNBC — which at 12-plus hours had the most continuous coverage of Tuesday’s election returns of any network — started calling races immediately after the first polls closed at 7:00 p.m. Keith Olbermann anchored the coverage, flanked by primetime colleagues Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow. Olbermann provided his usual branded sarcasm (when throwing to Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell’s concession speech, Olbermann told viewers to “get your popcorn”). Chuck Todd and his familiar fu-manchu were a calming influence on the broadcast, skillfully crunching the election returns as they came in. MSNBC’s broadcast was the easiest to follow among the major cable networks, though it lacked fireworks and heavy-hitters, like those employed by Fox News.



“Election Night in America,” 7:00 p.m. – 3:00 a.m.

For “Election night in America,” Ken Jautz celebrated his first election as CNN’s executive vice president with Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper anchoring a broadcast that featured an overflowing dais of commentators — filled with nearly a dozen contributors, including the network’s newest primetime stars Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer — that was so big it had to be brokeninto two tables. (Parker and Spitzer were at the big table.)

At the kids table, Paul Begala provided a prepared soundbyte, which I’ll paraphrase: “In 2008, the question was, 'Are we ready for a black president?' In 2010, it’s, 'Are we ready for an orange speaker?'” John King manned the so-called “Election Matrix,” but it wasn’t utilized nearly as much as I had hoped.



“America's Election HQ,” 7:00 p.m. – 4:00 a.m.

Fox News started its coverage with Shep Smith, who during the first hour declared, “Many Americans are clearly fed up with Obama's policies.” By 8:30, Bill O’Reilly, serving as a contributor/pundit to the coverage anchored by Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier, was downright giddy about the results — with the Republicans seizing back control of the House.

Fox News had the heaviest hitters in terms of punditry, with Sarah Palin (whose first appearance they teased for more than an hour), Karl Rove, ex-NPR analyst Juan Williams and the reliably combative O’Reilly, who dissed MSNBC more than once. Fox News also had the most interesting music choice of the evening, with the bulk of the broadcast scored by a tasteful techno track. (“We’re just getting warmed up for the rave tonight,” Kelly quipped at one point.) That came in handy for its multiple video montages, which framed the election as more of a referendum on “who’s in the White House than who’s on the ballot.” One even featured the “Rent is Too Damn High” party guy from New York’s gubernatorial race.

Interesting side note: Fox did not carry O’Donnell’s concession speech live; CNN and MSNBC did.



I didn’t watch CNBC too carefully on election night, but I did notice that, like CNN and MSNBC, the business network had a data bar at the top of the screen in addition to its double scroll of stock quotes and a chyron at the bottom of the screen — potential first for CNBC. Former presidential candidate Howard Dean showed up for a little while, too.



NBC came on live at 9:00 p.m., opening the network broadcast with Brian Williams announcing a huge projection – that Republicans would regain control of the House of Representatives, as many had predicted. The timing was enough to get more than a passing grade, and Chuck Todd pulling double duty on the ones and twos helped, parsing the returns for a broadcast audience that was probably annoyed NBC was pre-empting the “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” for the midterms anyway.



“Vote 2010,” 9:30 p.m. – 11:00 p.m.

ABC’s online coverage — even without Andrew Breitbart — with its partner Facebook was comparatively awesome. The broadcast itself, anchored by Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, was tame. In fact, they spent so much time throwing to and promoting what was happening online, I would’ve rather watched the entire broadcast there.



"Campaign 2010: Election Night," 10:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m.

CBS, the top-rated primetime network, had the lightest television presence of any major network on election night, limiting its coverage to two one-hour blocks (10:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., and again from 1:00 a.m. to 2 a.m.) — instead providing updates at the top of each hour.

Her award-winning 2008 Sarah Palin interview aside, election politics are a weak spot for Katie Couric, who anchored the broadcast’s coverage.


Comedy Central

“Indecision 2010: Maybe We Can't,” 11:00 p.m. – 12:00 p.m.

Fresh off its "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," Comedy Central produced live telecasts of "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" for its "Indecision 2010." (Colbert said one of the things he's learned doing six years of live broadcasts: "Viacom doesn't pay overtime if you work past midnight.") And with a tagline — "Maybe We Can't" — critical of the Obama administration, Stewart and Colbert  were poised to engage in bipartian ripping of the Democrats, Republicans and, of course, the crush of cable news election coverage.

Correspondent Olivia Munn, like CNN's Begala, roasted soon-to-be House majority leader John Boehner, whose skin tone can only be described as "code orange." Stewart and co. also ripped CNN and MSNBC for their awkward use of 3D technology, pointing out that Anderson Cooper's Capitol Building hologram was decidedly bigger than Chuck Todd's virtual Capitol.

Fear, it seemed, had been restored.