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At 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Americans all over the country began flicking on their TVs.
Moments after CNN and most of the major television networks declared that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had defeated President Trump in the presidential election, viewership surged across the three major cable news networks and the Big Three broadcast networks, according to Nielsen Media Research.
On CNN, viewership jumped 36 percent at 11:30, six minutes after the network became the first to project the Biden win. The MSNBC audience jumped 29 percent at 11:30. (NBC News had made its call at 11:25.) On Fox News, which made the call at 11:40, there was a 38 percent jump. The broadcast networks broke into “special report” mode and also saw huge spikes, according to Nielsen.
In all, more than 21 million viewers across the six networks took in the news that Mr. Biden would be the 46th president, an unusually high total for a weekend morning.
CNN had, by far, the most viewers of any network, averaging around seven million between noon and 2 p.m. Eastern time. MSNBC, the home network for many liberal viewers during the Trump years, had an average of roughly 4.5 million. Fox News, which usually has a commanding lead in viewership, had about three million.
Fox News viewers also began to tune out a little more quickly than viewers of the other cable networks, not long after being greeted to gleaming graphics that Mr. Biden was now president-elect. Viewers started to leave Fox News around noon, about 20 minutes after the network made its call, according to data from Nielsen.
By 3 p.m., as cable viewers began to tire of the roundtable discussions about a Biden presidency, CNN had lost 24 percent of its noon audience and MSNBC 23 percent. But Fox News had shed 45 percent of its audience, to about 1.8 million viewers from about 3.4 million at noon.
The gap between Fox News and other networks was even more pronounced Saturday night. More than 35 million watched Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s prime-time speeches, according to Nielsen. CNN commanded the largest audience, with 13.6 million, and MSNBC had the second-highest total, 8.5 million. CBS led the broadcast networks with 5.6 million.
But Fox News had the smallest viewership of any network that carried the speech: Only three million watched.
No television executive anticipated that this trend would last longer than a day or two. Fox News has hit record ratings marks throughout the year. It scored the highest viewership in prime time on election night of any network.
And indeed, by Monday, it appeared that order had been restored. Fox News won in prime time as its hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — who continued to discuss the Trump campaign’s baseless claims about voter fraud and other alleged election irregularities — averaged 3.8 million viewers, a million better than MSNBC and 1.3 million better than CNN.
Call it the Great Wait.
As the polls closed in key states on Tuesday, TV networks held off on projecting winners throughout much of their election night coverage, promising a prudent, go-slow approach to avoid the up-is-down shocks of 2016.
[Fox News made a big call on election night, buoying Biden and angering Trump.]
By midnight on the East Coast, anchors were telling viewers that it was now their turn to cool their heels: A clear outcome, they warned, could take days.
“If it were a tennis match, each side is holding serve,” the Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said. “I think the story of the night has really not been told yet.”
And on CNN, the map maestro John King likened the pending results in Pennsylvania — which was emerging as a tipping point — to a ballgame in the “second or third inning at best.”
With a vote count complicated by the coronavirus pandemic and enormous pressure bearing down on TV executives to dodge an egg-on-the-face moment, the major news networks had promised to be cautious.
They weren’t kidding.
No major projections in battleground states came during prime-time hours. The dam burst shortly after 11 when the Fox News decision desk called Florida, Texas and Ohio for President Trump and — in a projection that caught other news outlets off guard — Arizona for Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Unlike ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC, which share information on vote counts as members of the National Election Pool, Fox News relies on a proprietary data model that draws from The Associated Press to make its determinations on election nights. (Other networks continued to describe those battleground states as too close to call after the projections by Fox News.)
One clear assessment of what was shaping up to be an inconclusive evening came shortly before 11:30, courtesy of ABC’s lead anchor, George Stephanopoulos.
“It is looking increasingly clear that we are not going to know who the next president of the United States will be tonight,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “And we are just going to have to be patient as we go through this process in the coming hours, and perhaps in the coming days.”
Prudence in election coverage is preferable to jumping the gun. Still, as the night wore on, anchors seemed ready for answers. Fox News brought on its politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, several times to explain the reluctance of the network’s data team to project battleground winners. It turned into a good-natured grilling session.
“Our call will hold, we feel very confident,” Mr. Stirewalt said after his team’s early projection that Mr. Biden would take Virginia.
On MSNBC, Steve Kornacki frantically worked his interactive map to work out scenarios that would allow Mr. Biden to win the election without taking Pennsylvania.
“That is crazy,” said Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s highest-rated anchor, as she looked on. “I mean, I have done that math myself, and I know it’s true, but I can’t believe we’re talking about it as one of the things that might actually happen.”
Before the evening began, major media polls had shown Mr. Biden with a narrow lead in several key states, and some producers had game-planned how to handle a situation in which Mr. Trump, down in the count, tried to declare a premature victory.
Instead, the early results prompted conversations about why the polls had seemed to miss some of the night’s emerging trends.
On MSNBC, a destination for ardent critics of the president, the anchor Nicolle Wallace argued that her colleagues’ focus on North Carolina was wrong, just as the state appeared to be tilting toward Mr. Trump. “We shouldn’t pull our viewers into dramas that aren’t necessary,” Ms. Wallace said, calling the state a “sideshow.”
When Mr. Biden fell behind in Florida, Ms. Wallace said: “You can feel the hopes and the dreams of our viewers falling down, and you can hear liquor cabinets opening all across this great land.”
CNN’s coverage was dominated by updates from Mr. King, who zoomed in and out of counties in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio. The conclusions were murky. “Is it significant?” Mr. King asked, peering over results in Pasco County in Florida. “We don’t know.”
Four years on, TV networks still have scars from the 2016 race, when Mr. Trump’s victory shocked many journalists. His norm-busting presidency and its political fallout became the central focus of cable news, which watched audiences swell.
As Wednesday dawned, the future for the networks, and the country, remained hazy. “We are tonight putting together an enormous jigsaw puzzle, but we don’t have the box that has the picture on it,” the CBS News anchor John Dickerson said. “We’re going to be developing that picture as we look at these pieces.”
Tiffany Hsu, Edmund Lee and Katie Robertson contributed reporting.
There’s a media phenomenon the old-time blogger Mickey Kaus calls “overism”: articles in the week before the election whose premise is that even before the votes are counted, we know the winner — in this case, Joe Biden.
I plead guilty to writing a column with that tacit premise. I spent last week asking leading figures in media to indulge in the accursed practice of speculating about the consequences of an election that isn’t over yet. They all read the same polls as you do and think that President Trump will probably lose.
But many leaders in news and media have been holding their breaths for the election — and planning everything from retirements to significant shifts in strategy for the months to come, whoever wins. President Trump, after all, succeeded in making the old media great again, in part through his obsession with it. His riveting show allowed much of the television news business, in particular, to put off reckoning with the technological shifts — toward mobile devices and on-demand consumption — that have changed all of our lives. But now, change is in the air across a news landscape that has revolved around the president.
And given the jittery pre-election timing, I’ll try to keep these items short so you can check Nate Silver’s Twitter feed in between reading them.
The News Business After Trump
Before the 2016 election, Andrew Lack, then the head of NBC News, warned colleagues that MSNBC’s revenue would take a 30 percent hit if — when — Hillary Clinton was elected, two people familiar with the remark told me. (After the debacle in 2016, few in the media wanted to be quoted speculating about what happens after the election.)
Well, TV sure dodged that bullet! CNN’s chief, Jeff Zucker, later told his Los Angeles bureau that Mr. Trump had bought the declining business four more years, a person who was there recalled. (A spokesman for CNN said that Mr. Zucker would not have speculated on future ratings.) And it has been a profitable time for cable news, a record-breaking year for political books and, generally, a bonanza for the legacy media that live rent-free in the president’s head.
That may be ending. MSNBC and other outlets that thrived on resistance to Mr. Trump may see their audiences fade, said Ken Lerer, a veteran investor and adviser to old media and new, who also predicted that The New York Times would “cool off” as you, dear reader, find other things to do.
And the people who continue to pay attention to the news will stay online.
“The pandemic has advanced digital by four or five years and it will not go back to what it was,” Mr. Lerer said.
In corporate media, that means what Cesar Conde, the new chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, has been calling an “omnichannel” strategy, as brands like MSNBC no longer see themselves primarily as television. For new outlets, it’s an opportunity to press their advantage of being native to this new world.
“Many media organizations have spent the past four years generally failing to adapt to a campaign, a president, a White House and an administration that is extremely online,” said Stacy-Marie Ishmael, the editorial director of the nonprofit Texas Tribune. “We are only, four years in, getting to grips with how to contend with rhetorical techniques, messaging and communications steeped in misinformation and propaganda.”
Keep up with Election 2020
Others predicted a deeper cultural shift — from Stephen Colbert’s biting satire back to the sillier Jimmy Fallon, from politics back to entertainment, whenever the studios can get production running again. But some veterans of the business of politics doubt that news coverage can really calm down — or that consumers can look away.
“If Biden is elected, conservatives will be energized, not retreating,” said Eric Nelson, the editorial director of Broadside Books, HarperCollins’s conservative imprint. “Trump will keep tweeting, and new scandals from his presidency will keep unfolding for well into 2022. By the time that all chaos and nonsense runs out, Trump could be running again for 2024.”
A Wave of Retirements
You aren’t the only one just barely hanging on until Election Day. Most of the top leaders of many name-brand American news institutions will probably be gone soon, too. The executive editor of The Los Angeles Times, Norm Pearlstine, is looking to recruit a successor by the end of the year, he told me. Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, just bought a house out of town and two Posties said they expected him to depart next year. He hasn’t given notice, The Post’s spokeswoman, Kristine Coratti Kelly, said. And the executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, is on track to retire by the time he turns 66 in 2022, two Times executives told me, dampening speculation that he might stay longer.
Over in big TV, Mr. Zucker, of CNN, has signaled that he’s frustrated with WarnerMedia, and broadcast television is overflowing with speculation about how long the network news chiefs will stay on, though no executives have suggested imminent departures. “Everyone is assuming there’s going to be turnover everywhere, and everyone is absolutely terrified about who is going to come in,” one television industry insider said.
This isn’t just the usual revolving door. Newsroom leaders face strong pulls in conflicting directions. Outlets all along the spectrum, from the staid BBC to the radical Intercept, have been moving to reassert final editorial control over their journalists. But newsroom employees — like a generation of workers across many industries — are arriving with heightened demands to be given more of a say in running their companies than in years past. New leaders may find opportunities to resolve some of the heated newsroom battles of the last year, or they may walk into firestorms.
Mr. Pearlstine, the only one talking openly of his departure, told me that the new “metrics for success might be different as well — issues such as inclusiveness, such as being anti-racist, such as really commanding some new platform, be it podcasts or video or newsletters, in addition to having journalistic credentials.”
And, he said, the old top-down newsroom management is a thing of the past. “Consent of the governed is something you have to take pretty seriously,” he said.
Wesley Lowery, a CBS News correspondent who has been a voice for more diverse and politically engaged journalism, said he had already seen signs of change.
“These big institutions very rarely come out and announce some big sweeping change — they say, ‘We’re not changing,’ and they change,” he said. “Even people who made a big deal about how the rebels were wrong are now conceding to the things we all wanted.”
Fox News on Autopilot
The right-wing cable channel has been riding high as the quasi-official White House network, though it has always been at its strongest when it’s attacking Democrats — who seem poised to take power.
But the approaching election has executives around Lachlan Murdoch, Fox’s chief executive, preparing to battle on several fronts: with left-wing critics, with what senior executives fear could be regulatory retribution from Democrats and perhaps most of all from James Murdoch, Lachlan’s more liberal brother and critic, according to a person familiar with the company’s plans.
And Lachlan Murdoch ends the election cycle as he began it: with no real control of the network’s high-profile talent and an unusually low profile for a figure of his nominal political power. One data point: a surprised patron of the Midtown power lunch spot Estiatorio Milos in late October reported overhearing Mr. Murdoch politely spelling his name to a hostess who didn’t recognize him.
The Attention Wars
The battles over speech and censorship, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci tweeted recently, are becoming “attention wars.” As recently as last week, senators were dragging in tech executives to complain about individual tweets, but the arguments are about to turn more consequential. The platforms are increasingly being pushed to disclose how content travels and why — not just what they leave up and what they take down.
“We’re in this brave new world of content moderation that’s outside the take-down/leave-up false binary,” said Evelyn Douek, an expert on the subject and a lecturer at Harvard Law School.
In practice, Twitter, Facebook and the other big platforms are facing two sources of pressure. The first is from Australia and the European Union, where Germany has become the latest to push toward tight copyright restrictions.
“We are now at an inflection point with the digital platforms,” Rod Sims, the chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, told me in an email. “The tide has turned all around the world as governments and antitrust enforcers now see the size of the challenge ahead.”
The second source of pressure is the United States, where President Trump has pushed to repeal or revise Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects platforms from being liable for what they publish while allowing them to moderate content. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a co-author of the 1996 law who would head the powerful Finance Committee if Democrats take control of the Senate, said he was skeptical that changes to Section 230 would actually stop misinformation or what conservatives claim is censorship. And he noted that Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has said he supports some revisions, too.
“He made his money, and now he wants to pull up the ladder behind him,” Senator Wyden said in an interview on Saturday. “The fact that Facebook, of all companies, is calling for changes to 230 makes you say, ‘Wait a second.’” Mr. Wyden said his priority when it comes to big tech in the new Congress would be privacy legislation.
The media’s internal conflicts, meanwhile, play out on Twitter and, increasingly, on Substack, a newsletter platform where large audiences are paying for work by anti-Trump conservatives and iconoclastic voices on the left, who were joined last week by Glenn Greenwald, the national security journalist and free speech advocate who helped found The Intercept and quit in a dispute over whether his work should be edited.
Another way of looking at Substack is as a kind of Twitter Premium — a place you can pay for more content from your favorite journalists. And that synergy has caught the attention of some at Twitter itself, where the notion of acquiring the newsletter company has been discussed internally, a person familiar with the conversations said. (Executives at both companies declined to comment on the speculation.)
But it’s not clear whether Substack will continue to be the venue of choice for all of its stars. Mr. Greenwald wrote that he’d been exploring “the feasibility of securing financing for a new outlet” that would challenge what he sees as the “groupthink” of the left in the Trump era. And roiling anger in Silicon Valley with tough media coverage of companies and investments means there are deep pools of money for a new assault on big media.
“There’s going to be a surge of money after the election, especially from tech bros who think they can fix everything,” said one of the Substack writers who has drawn interest from tech investors.
Staying Sane for the Next 48 Hours
Nothing good will come of reading political news, much less Twitter, between now and the election. Election week is usually a good time to hide out at the movies, but with theaters closed, you’ll have to find escape elsewhere. Two favorites: The Times’s brilliant Election Distractor on the web; and for your Kindle, Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, a bit of high-concept political sci-fi that will prepare you for many of the coming tech and political battles.
On election night, however, come to Twitter for the jokes and stay for what is really one of the highlights of American democracy, such as it is: the reassuringly sophisticated, nerdy and nonpartisan vote-counting conversation that you can listen in on among the likes of Mr. Silver, Nate Cohn, Ariel Edwards-Levy and Brandon Finnigan.