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Why the Networks are Worried About Nov. 4

As we approach the two-week countdown, the nation is on the edge of its proverbial seat waiting to see how Election Night is going to play out. Democrats are worried about getting too comfortable [voices.washingtonpost.com], Republicans are now going on to the red states [www.cnn.com] . But Election Night is also up in the air for one more player: the television networks.

As anxiety over who will become the next president of the United States spreads throughout the country, the East Coast media elite are popping xanex in their midtown offices, wondering how they will fill the time [www.politico.com] if the election is called early.

This is a dilemma they have not had to face for a while. The 2000 Election Night last for 37 days—a goldmine for network television. Though not as close as four years earlier, the 2004 Election took us through the following morning, with everyone glued to the television until the wee hours of the morning.

Election Night programming goes from before the first polls in the East Coast close all the way until 2 am, Eastern time. If it become clear early that Obama is going to win, which would be the case if he wins Virginia, the networks will have a tough time holding on to eyeballs, their ratings will drop, and they lose money.

This concern on the part of the networks is an even greater concern for the country, because it says a lot about what motivates the programming and reporting of mainstream news. The networks’ interests, while not altogether crass—they do take pride in the presentation and accuracy of information—are not in line with the interests of the country. If the news media’s primary function is to exercise the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press as a means of upholding our democracy, then it seems that for one night, at the very least, they could put their own ratings aside and start reporting results with some integrity (as in the opposite of what FOX and the others did in 2000).

Now I understand that good ratings means more money, which is necessary for the networks to survive in order to provide this information to us. But maybe if they would allow something larger than ratings to dictate their content for once, perhaps they could begin to earn back the trust of the public, and thus win back eyeballs that translate into dollars. And what better night is there than November 4 to experiment with a broadcast informed by and adjusting to what’s happening in the world more than what is going to entice advertisers?

–Jamie Wong