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Without Florida to mess it up, TV election coverage was a little dull

You could hear the oh-no-not-again! shudder in Wolf Blitzer's voice. CNN had just  posted the first returns from Florida . . . and the vote totals didn't match up with the percentages. "There's something wrong with those numbers," Blitzer said, visions of hanging chads and butterfly ballots no doubt dancing in his head. The graphic abruptly disappeared, seemingly along with any hope of a presidential victor being declared Tuesday night.

But this was one spell of deja view that passed quickly. Florida's endemic electoral weirdness, which transfixed, astonished and ultimately revolted television audiences on Election Night in 2000 and 2004, passed mostly unnoticed Tuesday as Barack Obama's surge squashed any chance of another wee-hours cliffhanger.

Obama_wins_2_copyIf Obama's easy victory brought a welcome clarity to television coverage, it also sapped most of the drama. It was a little like watching a murder mystery where the actors kept winking at the audience -- c'mon, you know how this turns out. Long before the big battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio were officially called for Obama, making it all but mathematically impossible for John McCain to win, anchors and reporters were putting a crown on Obama's head and an autopsy scalpel in McCain's heart -- almost literally.

At 6:30 p.m., when the polls were still open in 49 states, CNN's talking heads were referring to McCain in such morbid tones that analyst David Gergen cried out, "He's not dead!'' Minutes later, on Fox News, political writer Morton Kondracke declared: "When the history books are written, clearly this is going to be the first African-American president of the United States, most likely, and you know, that is a profound moment in history."

That may have seemed a preposterous statement at a moment when no more than 10,000 votes of a potential 40 million had been counted. But the network teams knew what most viewers did not: that exit polls showed Obama sweeping practically every category of voters, right down to -- as CBS' Katie Couric would reveal later in the evening -- people who use only cellphones and not land lines. (By a 64 to 25 percent margin, she added for precision.)

Obamatv3 The networks were reluctant to divulge the results of the exit polls before they were verified by actual vote totals -- they're sometimes inaccurate, as Al Gore and John Kerry will ruefully attest -- but in this case the margins were so overwhelming that they left little doubt that Obama would win a decisive victory. (Despite tight security -- network liaisons with the pollsters were not only sequestered but deprived of their cellphones and BlackBerries -- the results began leaking onto the Internet at such sites as the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post shortly after 5 p.m.)

But by 8 p.m., when NBC and ABC called Pennsylvania for Obama moments after the polls closed there, the pretense began to fade. "There's something significant in how quickly we were able to call Pennsylvania," confided NBC's Chuck Todd. Added MSNBC's Chris Matthews: "The only way McCain could win this election was to win Pennsylvania."

With so little suspense about the outcome, the networks turned their attention elsewhere. As CBS cameras showed the crowd amassing for Obama's victory speech in Chicago, Bob Schieffer -- practically the only person on the air Tuesday night to remember it -- noted the historical irony of the site: Grant Park, where antiwar riots 40 years ago shattered the bonds of a Democratic Party coalition that had won seven of the previous nine presidential elections.

"This is where those awful riots took place during the 1968 convention, Katie," Schieffer marveled. "I've never seen another one quite like it. The rioting went on for a week there. And now we're told that before this is over tonight, there may be as many as a million people gathered in Grant Park to hear Barack Obama speak."

Fancy new technological gimcracks were another diversion. Blitzer conducted weird interviews with holograms of CNN reporters beamed in from different sites, looking eerily like stop-action animation from old Japanese monster movies. Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univisión also took a multimedia approach to their coverage, soliciting e-mails from viewers and reading them on the air. And on Fox News, Megyn Kelly showed a touch of techno-gender envy, complaining that her giant touch-screen (dubbed the Launch Pad) wasn't getting as much attention as the one controlled by her colleague Bill Hemmer (known as the Bill-board).

"Look at this thing, Brit, would you look at this?" she begged Hume. "Megyn, that confirms it, you're very, very important," Hume replied soothingly, doubtless thinking that Florida isn't the only reason he's retiring after this election.


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