US Election Night

Tuesday, November 4, 2008 by

“It belongs to you,” proclaimed President-Elect Obama, live in Chicago.

Nice of him to offer an explanation of the founding principle behind the BBC licence fee, but an exuberant planet wasn’t listening. And that was probably just as well. The Beeb’s coverage of Barack Obama’s victory, John McCain’s defeat, plus dozens of crucial polls for both houses of the US Congress, was no valedictory tonic for the corporation’s millions of paymasters. Especially bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived ones, in no mood for missed cues, assistant floor managers wandering in front of camera, and a host who looked in dire need of a nap and a blanket.

Granted, election night television is never the slickest of endeavours. An element of improvisation and unexpected mistakes can add a bit of levity to proceedings. But only if those proceedings are rooted in a self-evidently sure-footed, fired-up attitude in front and behind the camera.

An assistant floor manager makes his mother very proud

An assistant floor manager makes his mother very proud

Such an attitude had scant presence here. David Dimbleby was crabby from the off. Tired, unable to summon useful observations (“We don’t know what’s going to happen until we get some votes in”), falling back on crass elucidation, and invariably resorting to asking yet another guest yet another variation on “so, what does it really mean?”, this was definitely not vintage Dimbleby.

Just minutes in, he appeared on a giant screen behind Jeremy Vine’s head, gesticulating furiously at a studio assistant. He then tied himself in knots over the difference between baseball and basketball; went on to refer to a key swing state as “a toss-up steak”; and finally announced that Virginia had been “Republican since 1964 when LBJ [a Democrat] took it”.

In fact, his grasp of American states, or more precisely his grasp of viewer-friendly labels for American states, was his greatest failing of the night. Tennessee was dismissed as “the home of Nashville and Memphis”. Minnesota was summed up as a “state of lakes and forests”.  South Carolina was merely “proper southern territory”, Iowa had “eight pigs for every resident” and Pennsylvania was “the big potato”.

"I want to go to bed"

"They move so fast...eight pigs...those dresses...big potato"

This wasn’t just lazy, it was verging on the actively ignorant. David also seemed to show his age, in terms of turns of phrase, slow-wittedness, and – sad to say – all-round curmudgeonly moaning. Sounding like a 1960s Man Alive reporter, he recalled how Barack Obama “wasn’t seen as a black”. “Oh dear, they move so fast,” he whimpered when faced with a moderately-paced on-screen results update. His verdict on Sarah Palin? “Those dresses…she looked good in them.”

He was lucky he had, sitting to his left, the BBC Washington correspondent Matt Frei, who revealed himself to be a walking bibliography of American facts and fancies. Whenever David allowed him to speak, Frei certainly proved to be the most useful of the permanent guests, more so than the US analyst Professor Larry Sabato – never afforded enough time to develop his arguments – and America’s own Dimbleby doppelganger, Ted Koppel, whose ponderous interjections (“let me ramble for a moment about American history”) even spurred our host into a somewhat ironic plea for less jaded chat.

Ted Koppel rambles; David moans; a planet shrugs

Ted Koppel reminisces about 200 years of American history

Back in London, Jeremy Vine essayed a more sober tone than he’s chosen, or been forced, to do of late. No jeans, no jumping around, no Roger Rabbit-esque interacting with virtual politicians. But what he gained in dignity he lost in relevance.

The graphics at his disposal were dull and cumbersome. He was made to walk up and down a gantry for no reason. His microscopic analyses of random districts were always cued in at the least appropriate moments. Some of the comparisons he drew with previous polls were just plain meaningless.

Jeremy updates viewers on Ross Perot's chances

Jeremy Vine updates viewers on Ross Perot's latest prospects

Out in the field, Justin Webb was sorely underused, as was John Simpson (noting, sniffily, that this was the 13th US election he had covered) who was made to walk around outside Grant Park in Chicago talking to whoever he could find like Paddy Haycocks in a particularly sonambulant edition of As It Happens. Jon Sopel had been relegated to lurking in a Virginian coffee shop; “the place is really rocking” he insisted, as the camera panned round a half-empty room.

Other less experienced troops were handed much bigger gigs and their lack of experience and gravitas was often cruelly exposed. Laura Kuenssberg had got the worst gig of the night: the inevitable, pointless, look-how-trendy-and-modern-we-are internet café party.

"It's the hottest ticket in town!"

Two women watch "everything that happens on the internet"

Yelling into the camera from Times Square (or “Time Square” as the on-screen caption insisted) Laura explained this was where “people don’t just come to celebrate the new year, they come here to watch elections too!” Get away. She interviewed Ricky Gervais. “Who would David Brent vote for?” she asked.

Then she introduced the people who would, for the BBC, be watching “everything that happens on the internet”. Everything? Absolutely everything? What on earth comprised this multi-brained, uber-hot-wired army of digital soldiers? Two women at a trestle table. One of whom was looking at Facebook, the other at Twitter. “It’s the hottest ticket in town,” Laura pleaded.

Elsewhere Laura Trevelyan was standing next to some balloons in Pennsylvania. “These are the balloons,” she observed, pointing. “We don’t have anything predicted,” she went on, seconds before a caption predicted that very state to be won by Obama. Katty Kay struggled to be heard above the children’s choirs at John McCain’s HQ in Phoenix, Arizona. And Rajesh Mirchandani was at another Republican base in Colorado, being taken down by a local party chairman after getting his facts wrong about local politics. “You don’t know your history very well, do you?” the bigwig grunted.

"These are the balloons."

Laura Trevelyan points at balloons: "these are the balloons"

When it came to handling the conveyor belt of pundits and special guests, David made tough weather of even the most favourable of climates. He was unclear on names; thrown by quick changes of personnel; ineffectual at interrupting rambling point-scoring (Christopher Hitchens: “Sarah Palin believes in witches…she can’t tell the president of France from Inspector Clouseau”) and ill-disposed towards eliciting much by way of insight from a raft of Republican and Democratic insiders.

Confronted by the two-headed ravenous beast that was historian Simon Schama and former UN ambassador John Bolton, however, David finally jerked into something close to life. He merrily slapped down an overwrought Schama for wanting him to anoint Obama the winner too soon (“You’re such a wuss,” Schama retorted), indulged the pair in some caustic ideological nitpicking, then attempted – not that successfully – to pop Bolton back in his place after he began an unashamed anti-BBC rant.

Schama gets emotional (again); Bolton fumes

Schama gets emotional (again); an outraged Bolton blushes

First to feel the ire was Katty Kay, who ended up in a direct exchange with Bolton over the significance of Sarah Palin. “I think all your comments show is a fundamental ignorance of the Republican party,” he snapped. But it was Rajesh Mirchandani’s lame grilling in Colorado that really stoked the fires. “You,” he raged at everybody and nobody, “should fire that reporter! That man wasn’t conducting an interview! He was having an argument! I realise you’re a guest here [to David, or possibly the entire BBC] but that was outrageous!”

“Well,” sighed David, “you’ve had your say about that,” and hastily moved matters back onto less torrid ground. It was an unpleasant yet slightly surreal explosion. Bolton infused the coverage with a bit of energy, but of the wrong kind: negative, not positive; destructive, not constructive. Nonetheless it was energy, something the entire programme had not exactly been doused with up till then.

Granted, some of the lethargy was not the fault of our host or the BBC. Projections that should have turned up on the hour every hour failed to do so. Repeatedly, David hyped up the countdown to Results O’clock, climaxing in a bombastic musical sting, only for little or nothing to happen. “We have only two results,” he complained shortly after 12.30am, “what’s going on?” The Beeb were also erring on the side of propriety and not following network such as Fox or CNN in jumping the gun. “We will wait for the Associated Press and our affiliate, ABC,” David intoned.

Yes, we can

"Yes we can" - students at Morehouse College in Atlanta

Even so, much more could have been made of the delays and their possible explanation. When results did arrive, their significance was acknowledged in a cursory numerical fashion, and that was usually it. Not until 4am, when mathematics pushed Obama over the 270 total needed to become president, did coverage suddenly become infused with a sense of importance – and that was chiefly thanks to stirring shots of joyous crowds punching the air, embracing and weeping buckets, scenes you would never witness in this country even if Obama agreed to become Prime Minister.

David had one last shot at redemption in the unlikely shape of a live link-up with Gore Vidal. Slumped in a swivel chair, hair and clothes perilously askew, the salacious chronicler appeared intoxicated by the spirit of the occasion – or rather, intoxicated by an occasional spirit. Most probably several. Kicking off by mistaking David’s query about “being excited” as “being expected”, he proceeded to speculate on the absence of “an eruption”. Puzzled, David pressed for an explanation. “May I talk the facts of life to you?” Vidal drawled. “The BBC audience I know very well, and they like the facts of life…”

"May I talk the facts of life to you?"

"May I talk the facts of life to you?...I don't know who you are"

He then commenced an exposition of such mind-jarring monotony as to make any discussion of electoral college mechanics seem as palatable as a particularly well-baked big potato. In response, David did his best, perhaps realising this was his final chance at a reputation-enhancing roustabout. But as Vidal’s syntax became steadily garbled, so the writer’s line of vision steadily veered off towards a point somewhere on his far left.

Barely-disguised titters began to trickle from the guests back in the studio. Still Vidal went on. “I don’t know what you’re saying that I’m saying…I don’t know why you would, because I don’t know who you are…” By now Vidal was virtually side-on to camera. David hung in there: “I know who you are!” he chided. “Well you’re one up on me…this is the BBC…you like to get people who don’t know much about the subject…”

Enough was enough. Yet another pop at the corporation? This was clearly too much. “I think,” David announced, “we’ll quit while we’re ahead.” If decorum had not prohibited as much, his studio panel would surely have got to their feet in acclamation. They contended themselves with roars of laughter. “Well that was fun,” deadpanned David, “and unexpected.”

It was certainly the latter: David hadn’t been this feisty and downright awake all night. Trouble was, everybody else was already asleep, or past caring, or busy trying to find a replay of Obama’s victory speech on another channel. The party was over, at least on the BBC, and like a guest suddenly remembering where they’d put those eight pigs they’d brought with them when they’d arrived, it was too late. The viewer was full up: with emotion, with fatigue, with history.

a moment in television history

Moving pictures: a million people punch the air in Chicago

There was nothing more, nothing new, to be said. David and his guests had a go, but more, you sensed, out a duty to fill up the rest of the programme than a love of live television. The coverage succumbed to total insignificance. One of the Times Square ladies of letters talked about an invitation she’d received on Facebook. Ted Koppel sounded even more depressed. When the end came, David didn’t even say goodbye.

This was a night that did not reveal the Beeb in its best light, in particular one of its otherwise esteemed broadcasters, but nonetheless supplied a window onto a country that was very visibly hauling itself into the 21st century, and doing it with an electoral college-sized smile on its face.

Much earlier on in the evening, David had struck an oddly wistful tone in noting “one of the sadnesses of modern communication…it’s brilliant television, you just can’t hear anybody.” Wrong. This was one time when television worked most of its magic through pictures, and where the sounds emanating from BBC television failed to add any colour to an occasion where colour, literally, meant the world.


One Response to “US Election Night”

  1. Steve on November 14th, 2008 4:39 pm

    Brilliant summary – had me in stitches! (esp. Vidal slowly veering off to his left – haha!) Going to boookmark this site.