How not to watch the election returns on TV.

How not to watch the election returns on TV.

How not to watch the election returns on TV.

Media criticism.
Nov. 2 2010 1:52 PM

How Not To Watch the Election Returns on TV

If you must, tune in only at the top of the hour.

Broken television. Click image to expand.
Turn off the election-night coverage!

I've never understood the compulsion obeyed by so many of my fellow journalists and other politics-obsessed acquaintances to park themselves in front of the TV on election night and wait … and wait … and wait for something worthy of their time to be reported.

Election-night coverage is easily the dullest of the journalistic genres, which is saying a lot. The networks and the Associated Press all draw the same voting data from Edison Research, which boasts of its information monopoly on its site: "When you watch TV on Election Night and you hear projections of the results or analysis about who voted for whom—it comes from Edison's Exit Polls." Theoretically, the networks could project the winners of races as soon as they think the Edison data support such a forecast. But nowadays the networks don't, because they fear retaliation from the government, which in the past has threatened to erect legislation regulating the projection of winners before all or most precincts close in a state.

So network anchors "voluntarily" withhold predictions until most precincts close and then—sprongggg—Wolf or one of the Wolfettes leaps out of a box, the computer graphics start churning on your screen, and you're told with heraldic fanfare that Flumblebum has won that hotly contested Senate seat!

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In the absence of projected winners, the network talent have almost nothing to do besides stretch their thin material. They chat with one another, crochet scarves outside of camera view, and switch to those interminable "two-ways" that anchors conduct with correspondents camped out at the "victory" parties of the candidates. Worse yet, they grill their panel of pundits, whose contributions are almost always subtractive.

There's no news to be gleaned from the broadcasts before projections are made and sometimes less than no news after, as the candidate comes out to concede the race or claim victory. Personally, I'd rather be beaten with a dung-caked rake and forced to watch an infomercial about skin-care products than endure another two-way conversation, a concession speech, or a victory celebration on election night. If you watch TV coverage compulsively on election night, you must admit to yourself that it's out of habit and nothing else. If your political fanaticism was real, you'd be banging the URLs on your computer, not the TV remote.

You're completely wasting your time if you tune in before 7 p.m. (Eastern time), when the first statewide polls close in Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia. Better to flick on your TV set right at 7 p.m., when the networks will unleash the first of the projections or, better yet, subscribe to a news site's e-mail "news alert" service (here's MSNBC.com's) for breaking news and keep the TV set dark until 8 p.m., by which time another 19 statewide races will have finished collecting votes. Again, it makes little or no difference which network you watch. They'll make the same projections at roughly the same times. When I watch coverage at home, I play cable roulette with the news channels to keep any single anchor from getting under my skin.

Repeat this top-of-the-hour drill at 9 p.m., when another 14 states will have shuttered their polling places. But if you watch after 9 p.m., I promise I'll track you down and beat you with that dung rake. Only four states' polls close at 10 p.m. Another four close at 11 p.m., and Alaska and Hawaii end voting at midnight. I follow politics as closely as the next guy, but I can wait until Wednesday to find out how well Sen. Lisa Murkowski's write-in campaign went. Anyway, by 10 p.m., the network talent start to lean against one another and schlump around their sets like marathon dancers hitting their fourth day without sleep.

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Or avoid the TV charade completely by following my personal plan: Keep a laptop or smartphone by your side to snatch breaking news. Consult your Facebook and Twitter feeds and let the people you follow do your dirty work for you. If there's something worth watching in the TV coverage, they'll let you know. In the meantime, view something from your DVR or Netflix queues. Or read a book. I'll be unspooling the first episode of The Walking Dead, which is guaranteed to have more life in it than all the Wolf and Wolfettes stitched together.

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And, naturally, I'll be peeking at David Weigel's blog and Twitter, John Dickerson's coverage,andthe Politics landing page at Slate throughout the evening before I turn in at 10:30 p.m. Say, wouldn't this be a good time for Wolf Blitzer to play Wolfman in a movie? Send casting thoughts for Anderson Cooper (a Rocky Horror Picture Showremake, perhaps, but what role?), Greta Van Susteren, Bret Baier (The Invasion of the Body Snatchers?), Brian Williams, Candy Crowley, Eliot Spitzer, Chris Matthews (The Shining?), Diane Sawyer, David Gregory, and Charlie Rose to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Monitor my Twitter for evidence of vote fraud. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word verification in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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