Watching NOVA While Pennsylvania Closes
By Michael Getler
November 7, 2008
Last Tuesday was a historic night in lots of ways; for the United States, for Barack Obama, and for Americans who turned on their televisions for many hours to watch the returns roll in from an extraordinary election.
The Associated Press reported, using figures supplied by Nielsen Media Research, that a record-setting 70 million-plus viewers watched those returns in some 47 million households, also a historic high. "The numbers," as the AP put it, "seemed a fitting conclusion for a campaign that startled news executives at nearly every turn with the intensity of public interest, from debates to primary nights to conventions and even a prime-time infomercial."
Among the broadcast networks, ABC led with 13.1 million viewers. NBC had 12 million. CBS followed with 7.8 million and Fox Broadcast Network with 5 million. On the cable side, CNN had 12.3 million. Then came Fox News with just over 9 million and MSNBC with nearly 6 million. The Spanish-language Univision had 4.1 million. Nielsen Media Research does not measure program ratings for PBS or viewership on C-SPAN or the Fox Business Network.
A different Nielsen service measures PBS viewership at local stations and from what I can gather, based on preliminary numbers from a sampling of some 50 stations, PBS did not grab and hold many viewers. Both the rating and the share of households watching at any one time was about one percent, although a bit better in the western U.S. That means roughly one million households and 1.3 million people. Those numbers were not very good, according to officials here, below normal prime time ratings and below election coverage generally and the election special four years ago. This, in part, is something afflicting many television outlets these days as viewers have steadily more outlets to choose from, not to mention the impact of the Web on TV watching.
Nevertheless, this seems to me to be a poor showing for a television service that has, in fact, devoted a large chunk of its time and resources to providing coverage of an extraordinary and exciting political campaign, and much of that coverage and analysis has been first rate.
There's no doubt that the climax of an election night favors those channels with the resources to provide the fast-breaking news that viewers want, and PBS is not equipped to compete with the commercial networks and cable for the kind of elaborate, instantaneous news and analysis that an ABC or CNN, for example, can provide. What PBS does do often better than the others is provide illuminating, thoughtful and often thought-provoking reporting and historical context and analysis.
A Poor Finish to a Good Effort
But as a viewer, I felt PBS shot itself in the foot last Tuesday night and dropped the ball in the end zone during what had been an otherwise fine performance by public broadcasting throughout this election campaign. The fumble, as I saw it, was starting its Election Special too late in the evening.
PBS, if you remember, was the only broadcast network in late August and early September to devote all its prime time hours to complete coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. I got lots of mail at the time complimenting the service for doing that. Throughout the campaign, the five-nights-a-week NewsHour with Jim Lehrer stayed focused on the story, as did Washington Week. Lehrer and Gwen Ifill were chosen to moderate two of the four nationally televised debates, elevating PBS's profile even more. Frontline, NOW, Bill Moyers Journal, The Charlie Rose Show and other programs all contributed weighty, and sometimes controversial, entries into the public dialogue.
Yet on Election Night, PBS and its management, in my opinion, faltered. Lehrer and his usual staff cohorts and analysts, plus a panel of historians, all did well — in their ultra-quiet way on a most exciting evening — in trying to shed both contemporary and historical light on events as they unfolded. But the NewsHour Election Special did not start until 9 p.m. EST, long after dozens of states had closed their polls, and there was a one-hour gap for PBS viewers in much of the country between the end of the regular nightly NewsHour and the beginning of the special. During that hour, viewers, including me, in the eastern half of the country were treated to an hour-long episode of the science program NOVA.
Here in the nation's capital, the NewsHour first airs at 6 p.m. on Maryland Public Television, which can be seen in Washington, D.C. That was fine. Then a special updated edition of the NewsHour was broadcast at 7 p.m., its normal time, on the main local station, WETA — which is the home of Lehrer's NewsHour — and that was also fine. But then, from 8 to 9 p.m. nothing but NOVA, either a program here on "The Perfect Pearl" or, in some other places, "Missing in MiG Alley."
Sorry, Go Somewhere Else but Do Come Back
The decision to start the special election coverage at 9 p.m. rather than immediately after the updated NewsHour ended at 8 struck me as a serious mistake; a decision that essentially forced you to change channels, and maybe never go back. It broke the flow of the story of one of the most dramatic and historic elections just as it had begun to reveal itself.
Election coverage started on all the major networks at 7 p.m. EST, when the first half-dozen state polls closed. While the mysteries of the pearl were unfolding on PBS between 8 and 9 p.m., polls in 16 more states and D.C. closed, the first really big batch, including those in the key battleground states of Pennsylvania, Florida, New Hampshire and Missouri. Pennsylvania, a state that pointed to the eventual outcome, was called for Obama at 8:40 on CNN. If you were watching PBS, you wouldn't know that.
How could this happen? A system that had devoted so much to election coverage, and had earned praise from so many of its viewers, is absent, by choice, at a crucial time in the ultimate unfolding for many viewers. Maybe I'm the only one angry about this. I didn't get a single e-mail from viewers who experienced that 8-9 p.m. gap. Maybe the low ratings number is at least partly because many viewers did switch channels and did not go back.
I did hear from a viewer in Pennsylvania, and heard about others in California, who also were confronted by a NOVA program or a Charlie Rose Show they hadn't bargained for at a crucial time later in the evening, just before Obama was to deliver his acceptance speech. In both cases, local stations had been left unattended and on automatic pilot because there was no understanding, officials said, that a decision had been made to extend live coverage. I also heard about some viewers in Massachusetts who had similar complaints, told that the broadcast was ending at midnight and not getting the word that coverage was being extended.
When I asked PBS programming chief, Senior Vice President John Wilson, about why PBS did not have continuous coverage, he said: "PBS election coverage was always scheduled to begin at 9:00 p.m. EST — a point in the evening when the NewsHour producers believed a sufficient number of states would have concluded the voting process so as to have results to discuss and analyze.
"At the same time, the NewsHour is obligated to provide a 'regular' hour long program for member stations at 6:00 p.m. EST. For those viewers in cities where the NewsHour's regular program aired at 6:00 p.m. EST, the NewsHour aired as usual, followed by local programming and NOVA at 8:00 p.m. However in Washington, D.C., WETA chooses to air the NewsHour at 7:00 p.m., which created the perception of a 'gap' in coverage. On the west coast, NewsHour coverage began at 6:00 p.m. PST, and there was no perceived 'gap.'"
From where I sat here in the East, and from where I believe millions of others sat as well in much of the rest of the country, the gap in staying on top of the news on a historic evening was real and not just perceived.