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Television review

Networks had dizzying array of graphics, talking heads

Email|Print| Text size + By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / February 6, 2008

It was an election night with as many moving parts as there were moving graphics on a Fox News Channel screen. Indeed, the best metaphor for Super Tuesday coverage last night was probably that Fox ticker, filled with so many measures of counting - raw totals, percentages, delegate counts - that it threatened to overtake the screen and cover the analysts' heads.

That would have been rough, given how many commentators got airtime during the marathon coverage - otherwise known as The Long Wait for California Returns to Finally Arrive. Analysts on the varied networks ranged from jaded veterans of campaigns past to a flurry of African-American voices to the usual crew of columnist types. (At one point, Bill Bennett made a crack about being on CNN's second-string panel.)

Fox News, meanwhile, featured the talking-head debut of analyst Karl Rove, who described delegate selection in such intricate detail that anchor Chris Wallace sometimes had to cut him off. For all of the attempts to explain the complex process, the horse race was simpler. So the coverage focused, repeatedly and constantly, on who was winning states and momentum.

This was dangerous business, given how long it took for Western and West Coast returns to come in. The networks were clearly chastened by their New Hampshire primary experience - when predictions of a huge Barack Obama victory turned out to be wrong. But last night, they still had hours of airtime to fill.

East Coast returns came in quickly enough to end some bouts of commentary, such as an early running theme, based on preelection polls, that Hillary Clinton's lead wasn't what it used to be. Instead, the main Clinton storyline of the night was her victory in Massachusetts - over the explicit wishes of Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Governor Deval Patrick. MSNBC's Chris Matthews, in particular, seemed impressed: "Hillary Clinton has avoided losing in Massachusetts by beating the Kennedys," he crowed.

On the Republican side, the story focused on strong Southern showings by Mike Huckabee, whom the media had considered an afterthought in recent weeks. "He's having himself a pretty good night, wouldn't you say, Bill?" Fox's Brit Hume asked panelist Bill Kristol early on, and Kristol looked pained as he mumbled his reply: "Huckabee will have a not-trivial number of delegates off of tonight."

The networks often fixated on the flip side of the Huckabee win: the increasingly sad fortunes of Mitt Romney. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow gushed, early on, about "the hatred of the other candidates for Mitt Romney. So much so that they'll work in cahoots to defeat him."

If anything competed with the storylines it was technology. The cable channels clung proudly to their graphics and accessories: Hume at one point threw the baton to "Bill Hemmer with the cool map," while CNN's John King drew circles on a fancy touch screen.

Compared to cable, the broadcast networks looked positively muted, with low-key sets and far fewer swirling graphics. CBS even stripped its ticker to its bare essential: for most of the night, the network listed delegates alone, the only measure that ultimately mattered.

But what they lacked in lights and gizmos, the networks tried to make up for in capturing the voices of the people. CBS sent Daniel Sieberg, a correspondent in hipster eyeglasses, to report from a New York City bar where youngish people were watching returns. ABC continued its practice of reading commentary out loud from Facebook.com. And ABC's Charles Gibson - who last month sent academia aflutter when he vastly overestimated the salary of a college professor - last night chose to wax romantic over the quaintness of election day.

"I just want to say a word for poll workers," he said, sounding a little giddy, as the first returns rolled in. "The little old men and ladies and stuff - and not so old - they're so precise and they care so much!"

But if there was one target safer than the American poll worker, it was the Southerner. Over on MSNBC, Huckabee's much-mocked collegiate eating habits were once again fair game.

"I guarantee you Mike Huckabee's right now sitting with his popcorn popper," Joe Scarborough said, after noting some early Huckabee wins. "He's got the squirrels. He's putting them in and frying them up."

Keith Olbermann piled on: "The squirrel pizza arrives at what point?"

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to viewerdiscretion.net.

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