Rory Cellan-Jones

Surfing the election

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 5 Nov 08, 10:15 GMT

Life was so much simpler on election nights in the old days. You slumbered in front of the telly into the early hours, occasionally switching channels - if you were a real political anorak - to check on who was getting the results more quickly. Then you went to bed and got the result the next morning.

President ObamaBut today's interactive, digital multi-platform election viewer is presented with a much more rigorous challenge. At times last night, as I tried to follow the US elections, so much data was coming at me from so many sources I felt my brain might explode. I was hopping through every possible TV channel - the BBC, CNN, al-Jazeera, France 24, to name but a few.

I was surfing any number of websites, from the BBC's live text coverage to the New York Times, from the Huffington Post to Google News. There was a constant pinging from my Twitter feed, as friends provided a stream of instant analysis of the coverage and the politics.

Then there was Twitter's election site which tracked anything anyone anywhere was saying about the election - from a disgruntled McCain supporter:

"Went to eat at chili's so we could ignore the obama victory. They sat us right in front of a tv w/ cnn on. :-( "

To someone heading for the Chicago park where the Obama victory celebration would take place:

"We're in! Now in the holding area right outside the park."

Still, until just after 0100, this great flood of data produced very little that meant anything to me in terms of the result. CNN had beamed their Chicago reporter via a hologram into their New York studio - an amazing but utterly pointless advance in election technology. The BBC had two bloggers scanning their laptops in a Times Square studio - though neither seemed to have any fresh insight into the race. And conflicting rumours were scurrying around the web at ever greater speed.

All of this new technology was not delivering faster results. In fact, you got the sense that the networks, burned by previous misleading exit polls, were being ultra-cautious in "calling" states for Obama or McCain.

It was only at about 0200 that the picture really began to clear, and that was because the networks were finally becoming confident enough to call some of the key states. And what were the blogs and tweets and websites telling the world? That "Fox has called Ohio for Obama" or "CNN says Obama leads in Florida." So despite the proliferation of new voices that the web has delivered to election coverage, it was still the powerful voices of the old media - the mighty networks rich enough to pay for a mammoth polling operation - which brought the news to homes across the United States and much of the rest of the world.

Watching this election was certainly made far more enjoyable by the interactive, communal experience offered by the web. Alone on the sofa, with my family long since tucked up in bed, I was nevertheless connected to a worldwide community, and so able to shout at the TV or the web - and get a response. In fact, online friends kept me up and watching far later than I'd planned. But did the denizens of Web 2.0 get the news of an Obama victory more quickly than the couch-potatoes? I don't think so.


  • Comment number 1.

    Bloggers and web outlets, by their definition, tend to be small one/two person outlets, without the resources to mount major polling operations or to have reporters standing by in count halls.

    Can bloggers get to a point where they unite for election coverage and create a network where each individual blogger reports the results from where they're standing, and computers crunch the numbers?

  • Comment number 2.

    You're right that the online world merely repeated the networks, but I think the advantage of the multi-channel approach was the ability to hear local results.

    I have colleagues in Minnesota and the Al Franken Senate race was of interest. I wasn't going to get that from Mr Dimbleby.

  • Comment number 3.

    The web didn't work for me this year. It did in as much as it allowed me to have a few different video feeds coming in from around the world but the text based coverage seemed a little slow to me.

    The BBC bloggers added nothing to the TV broadcasts and I didn't know if they were actually blogging or just reading out peoples Tweets from Twitter.

    The only online overage that really worked for me was 66ourvote's Election Protection Twitter timeline.

    But tell me something, the Election studio was CGI right? Why can't news broadcasters resist the temptation of fully Greenscreen 'election headquarters'?

  • Comment number 4.

    My favourite general election night was when they simply played a very long Omnibus special called Video Jukebox which was presented by John Peel & John Walters (RIP the pair of them) charting the history of music videos and the results appeared in text form along the bottom during the night.

  • Comment number 5.

    It was a night for laptop on knee and TV on too.

    The main drama comes in fits and starts, and mostly late on - so the studio banter, arguments and technical difficulties provide the cartoons before the main film starts rolling. Like an old-fashioned trip to the flicks!

    Twitter provided a fun way of chatting amongst online friends without waking up the rest of the house. But it was never going to be a source of results.

    The CNN hologram was a technical treat, but wouldn't a bit of green screen and remote cameras with standard, synchronised movements not been easier?

    @rosscbrown - there's definitely room for a behind-the-scenes explanation of Vine's set, and explanation of how the actual touchscreen was hidden from view.

  • Comment number 6.

    I was struck by the same thing. It just goes to show that the older networks still have more clout, more gravitas.

    I couldn't really care less that Joe the Tweeter thinks that Virgina has gone to Obama, but when he and several others tell me that CNN has called VA for Obama then I took it seriously.

  • Comment number 7.

    i know, i was also surfing the elections on election night...


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