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Tension, Then Some Tears, as TV News Narrates a Moment for History

The tension mounted for days — and then broke, all at once.

CNN went first, calling the presidential election at 11:24 a.m. Eastern. It was followed in quick succession by NBC, CBS, ABC and The Associated Press. Fox News confirmed the outcome at 11:40 a.m., underscoring what its anchor Chris Wallace later called “the power of what we are seeing right now.”

“Here we have on Fox the headline, the chyron at the bottom of the screen, ‘Joe Biden Elected 46th President of the United States,’” Mr. Wallace told his viewers. “On Fox.”

The projection that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had beaten President Trump came after days of slow-burning suspense on the cable news networks and broadcast channels. As millions of anxious viewers watched, the anchors and pundits filled hours of airtime by tracking the vote counts in battleground states. All the while, President Trump fumed and filed legal challenges.

Some on-air personalities began to lose patience with the slow pace. On ABC on Friday night, Nate Silver, the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight, was asked if he thought the race was over, and he replied, simply, “At this point, yeah.”

The anchor, George Stephanopoulos, and ABC’s supersized panel burst into laughter, with one panelist exclaiming, “Why are we still here then?”

Some viewers may have begun wondering the same, despite pre-election pledges by news outlets that they would be extra careful in tabulating results. But resolution came shortly before lunchtime on Saturday, courtesy of Wolf Blitzer on CNN.

“After four long tense days, we’ve reached a historic moment in this election,” Mr. Blitzer announced. “CNN projects Joseph R. Biden is elected the 46th president of the United States, winning the White House and denying President Trump a second term.”

It was a projection in Pennsylvania that tipped the networks’ models to a surefire Biden victory, as a batch of a few thousand ballots from Philadelphia trickled in, heavily skewed in Mr. Biden’s favor. “It is a cathartic moment for millions and millions of Americans,” said the CNN correspondent Abby Phillip.

Catharsis of a different sort came for the dozens of television producers, correspondents and anchors who had been overseeing a virtually 24-hour broadcast since Tuesday night, with some political analysts pulling overnight shifts in the event of a decisive development.

Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s highest-rated anchor, had been the co-anchor of the network’s broadcasts all week until she had to go into isolation in what she called her “Covid quarantine cove” on Friday after a close contact tested positive for the virus.

On Saturday, Ms. Maddow appeared onscreen via Skype, explaining to viewers that she was cleaning her bedroom when she heard about Mr. Trump’s loss. (She said she was cleaning out the three-hole punch that she had used to make her research binder for election night and “Dustbusting up the little holes that fell out.”)

“I’m not sure this is the way I imagined I would learn that Donald Trump was a one-term president,” Ms. Maddow said. “But I’ll take it!”

Until Saturday, Fox News had appeared closest to calling the race for Mr. Biden because of its early call for the Democrat in Arizona, an election night projection that prompted criticism from Mr. Trump, and some rival data journalists, for possibly jumping the gun.

Still, Mr. Wallace seemed unimpressed with the president’s baseless talk of a fraudulent election and his legal challenges. “I think it’s going to become increasingly untenable,” he said, noting that Mr. Trump would need to find evidence of “industrial-strength election fraud and we have seen none of that so far.” He noted that Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, had begun to talk of a Biden presidency and predicted that his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate would follow Mr. Graham’s lead.

Donna Brazile, a Fox News contributor who was formerly the interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, wiped away tears as she reflected on the significance of Senator Kamala Harris becoming the first woman of color to be elected vice president.

“Been a long time coming, to be the last to get voting rights, to be those who waited and waited for our turn; it’s been a long time coming,” she said, after noting that she had been thinking about her grandmother, who did not have the right to vote. “This is not about asking anyone to leave the room. Just scoot over and let women also share in the leadership of this country.”

On CNN, the anchor Anderson Cooper asked the pundit Van Jones for his reaction. Mr. Jones, tearing up behind his eyeglasses, took a moment before saying, “Well, it’s easier to be a parent this morning. It’s easier to be a dad. It’s easier to tell your kids that character matters.”

The nail-biting week had exhausted anchors and audiences alike. On Friday, Jake Tapper of CNN acknowledged “frustration” among viewers, but evoked memories of the 2000 election, when networks had to reverse projections in Florida. “No one wants to go through that again,” he said, urging patience. “Everyone in the media wants to get it right.”

Shortly after Saturday’s projection, the major networks showed scenes of revelers celebrating Mr. Biden’s victory in American cities, as well as groups of Trump supporters in places like Harrisburg, Pa., who were waving Trump flags and carrying signs that said, “Stop the Steal,” a reference to the president’s unfounded claims that the election was fraudulent.

Mr. Trump, at that moment, was absent from the airwaves. He was off playing golf at a course in Virginia that bears his name.

Edmund Lee and Katie Robertson contributed reporting.

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Biden Town Hall Leads Trump in Ratings Battle

Television ratings matter to President Trump. So these numbers may sting.

In a victory that few in the TV and political arenas predicted, Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s town hall-style forum on ABC on Thursday night drew a larger audience than President Trump’s competing event on NBC, according to Nielsen.

Mr. Biden’s town-hall meeting, which aired on a single network, was seen by an average of 15.1 million viewers, compared with 13.5 million for Mr. Trump even though the president monopolized three networks — NBC, MSNBC and CNBC — simultaneously.

The town halls were vastly different television spectacles, befitting their respective protagonists. For an hour on NBC, Mr. Trump was darting and defiant as the “Today” host Savannah Guthrie pressed him to denounce QAnon and white supremacy (Mr. Trump hesitated on both) and clear up questions about his medical condition.

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Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

On ABC, Mr. Biden and the moderator George Stephanopoulos engaged in a sober 90-minute policy discussion more akin to a PBS telecast. (Politico wrote that flipping back and forth between the two was like “going from Bob Ross to ‘WrestleMania’.”)

NBC had drawn scorn for scheduling its event with Mr. Trump at the same time as Mr. Biden’s previously announced ABC forum. Executives at NBC News said it was a matter of fairness, saying they wanted the same conditions offered to Mr. Biden at his NBC town hall on Oct. 5. Critics, including the MSNBC star Rachel Maddow, suggested that NBC had erred in allowing Mr. Trump to appear at the same time as Mr. Biden.

It appears that Mr. Biden did not need to worry. And the fact that the Democrat outdrew his voluble Republican rival is likely to inspire dozens of hot takes about whether, after four seasons, Americans are simply growing bored with The Trump Show.

Keep up with Election 2020

Viewership for Mr. Biden’s event, which began at 8 p.m., rose as the night continued, surging to an average audience of 16.7 million in the final 30 minutes after Mr. Trump and NBC’s forum had gone off the air, according to Nielsen. (Mr. Biden’s viewership bested Mr. Trump even without the assist from his extra half-hour).

The numbers were a bracing outcome for the president, whose aides had been promising a decisive ratings win over his Democratic rival. “We’re going to have a much bigger audience than Joe for next Thursday,” Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump’s campaign, told Fox News last week.

At a rally in Ocala, Fla., on Friday, Mr. Trump complained that Mr. Biden was given “easy questions” by ABC and claimed, without basis, that Ms. Guthrie was “not too popular right now.”

“If you can’t handle Savannah, you can’t handle Putin and President Xi and Kim Jong-un,” the president said dismissively, referring to the leaders of Russia, China and North Korea. “That’s small potatoes, last night.”

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign took a victory lap. “Turns out more people last night were interested in watching a leader with a clear plan,” a Biden spokesman, T.J. Ducklo, wrote on Twitter, “regardless of how many channels” Mr. Trump was on.

The Nielsen figures released on Friday included viewers who watched the town halls on television or streamed the event to their TV screens.

His first debate with Mr. Biden, in Cleveland in late September, notched 73 million viewers. On Thursday, the overall viewership for both town halls was smaller than that by 60 percent.

Part of the reason Mr. Trump failed to match Mr. Biden’s ratings was a dropoff in viewers on MSNBC, whose prime time is beloved by liberals and Never Trumpers. Only 1.8 million people watched the Trump simulcast on MSNBC, below the channel’s usual average for that hour.

MSNBC’s audience is generally turned off by appearances by Mr. Trump, but its producers also did little to call attention to the event that would be pre-empting its usual 8 p.m. host, Chris Hayes.

Notably, MSNBC did not promote the event to viewers with an onscreen graphic, and when its 7 p.m. host, Joy Reid, signed off, she made no mention of the forum with Mr. Trump that was coming up next. When NBC held its Biden forum on Oct. 5, Ms. Reid’s lead-in show featured a promotional image of the former vice president in the corner of the screen.

It was a small but pointed sign of the tensions within NBC’s news division over its handling of the Trump event. Both Ms. Maddow and Mr. Hayes had suggested on the air Wednesday that they were not pleased with the scheduling decision.

After Mr. Trump’s forum ended on Thursday, MSNBC viewers were greeted by Ms. Maddow, the network’s top-rated personality, sitting at her anchor’s desk.

“Let me remind you what you just saw was a production of NBC News,” Ms. Maddow said, looking bemused. “We are MSNBC. We did not produce that event.”

Annie Karni contributed reporting.

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NBC’s Savannah Guthrie Grills Trump Opposite ABC’s Sober Biden Talk

George Stephanopoulos of ABC had it easy, steering an old-school Washington veteran through policy plans against a patriotic backdrop, while Savannah Guthrie of NBC had to navigate the stormy waters of QAnon, white supremacy and whether the virus-stricken president had pneumonia. (Despite repeated inquiries, he would not say.)

Viewers of Thursday’s dueling network town halls with President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. — which aired simultaneously in prime time, much to civic-minded critics’ chagrin — were treated to a pair of telecasts as starkly different as the candidates they featured.

On a night when Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump had been scheduled to meet on a single debate stage, television instead cleaved in two. Mr. Biden’s ABC town hall had all the fireworks of a vintage episode of “This Week With David Brinkley.” Mr. Trump’s NBC forum had all the subtlety of a professional wrestling match.

The election may hinge on which type of programming Americans want to spend the next four years watching.

Ms. Guthrie, an anchor on “Today,” welcomed viewers with a friendly greeting — “We want to say, right off the top, this is not how things were supposed to go tonight” — that only hinted at the stakes for her and her network.

Keep up with Election 2020

There was no debate on Thursday because Mr. Trump withdrew, refusing to commit to a virtual matchup. Mr. Biden agreed to an ABC town hall, and NBC booked Mr. Trump for the same night — and the same time, prompting a furious backlash. NBC stars like Mandy Moore denounced the network, and the MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow chastised her bosses on the air.

But if Mr. Trump expected an easy night on NBC, former home to his show “The Apprentice,” he did not anticipate Ms. Guthrie, whose background as a former litigator quickly came in handy.

In an out-of-the-gate barrage, Ms. Guthrie pressed Mr. Trump repeatedly on his medical condition, if he had taken a coronavirus test before the first presidential debate, if he would denounce white supremacy and if he opposed QAnon — questions that Mr. Trump, who typically sits down with friendly interviewers, had avoided facing.

The president is a skilled dodger who has outmaneuvered his interlocutors for four years. But Ms. Guthrie repeatedly interrupted his filibuster attempts, throwing Mr. Trump off kilter.

“I just don’t know about QAnon,” the president protested at one point, declining to criticize the fringe conspiracy group. “You do know!” Ms. Guthrie shot back, respectful but relentless.

At another moment, when Mr. Trump brandished a sheaf of papers to rebut a point — “I have things right here that will show you exactly the opposite!” — Ms. Guthrie revealed her own set of documents. “Me, too!” she retorted.

The tone tensed up when Mr. Biden declined, as he has several times, to fully explain his view on expanding the Supreme Court. “Don’t voters have a right to know where you stand?” Mr. Stephanopoulos asked.

That did not keep the Republican strategist Ari Fleischer from complaining about what he deemed an overly easy night for Mr. Biden. “NBC is an interrogation,” he wrote on Twitter. “ABC is a picnic.” Sean Hannity, on Fox News, was more explicit in accusing Ms. Guthrie of bias, saying she interrupted Mr. Trump too often.

Critics of NBC are likely to argue that Mr. Trump, despite the grilling, still enjoyed a full hour of prime-time across NBC, MSNBC and CNBC, the networks that simulcast his town hall. And all after he refused to attend the scheduled debate with Mr. Biden.

Moments after the Trump event wrapped up, Ms. Maddow greeted her MSNBC viewers with brow firmly arched. “Well,” she declared, “that happened.”

Tiffany Hsu contributed reporting.

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