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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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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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The TV Divide: Convention Ratings Surge on MSNBC as Fox News Dips

This week’s Democratic National Convention attracted an average nightly television audience of 21.6 million viewers, down roughly 18 percent from 2016 but still a respectable number given how many Americans have turned away from traditional TV sets in favor of online video and streams.

An examination of TV viewing patterns reveals a nation that remains deeply divided, politically and culturally. And it raises questions about which voters chose to focus on the convention and which voters tuned it out.

MSNBC, home of liberal favorites like Rachel Maddow and Nicolle Wallace, had the highest-rated prime-time week in its 24-year history. The channel’s mostly unfiltered coverage of the four-day Democratic jamboree easily ranked ahead of every other TV network on every night.

Fox News, the cable home of Trump cheerleaders like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, devoted its 10 p.m. hour to convention coverage. The network recorded its lowest average viewership in the time slot since the start of the year.

Over all, live TV viewership fell 17.6 percent from 2016, according to the ratings agency Nielsen. Thursday’s broadcast, when former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. accepted the nomination in Wilmington, Del., drew 24.6 million viewers, the week’s biggest television crowd.

Still, the ratings picture underscored concerns about a choose-your-own-news dynamic that is increasingly prevalent around the country, as Americans head into a high-stakes election reliant on information sources that can affirm pre-existing points of view.

The divide was not exactly unexpected. Fox News, the No. 1-rated cable news channel — and, this summer, the top-rated network in all of prime-time television — typically lags behind its rivals during the week of a Democratic convention.

Even so, Fox News drew a bigger audience on Thursday than CBS or NBC, including among younger viewers, a notable win over two broadcast networks that are available in more American households. Fox News’s coverage outranked CBS every night of the convention.

Few viewers — or Democratic officials, for that matter — knew quite what to expect.

With the coronavirus preventing the usual TV tropes of patriotic crowds and airdropped balloons, Democrats put on an entirely virtual show, mixing taped video feeds with celebrities on a Los Angeles soundstage and Mr. Biden speaking to a mostly deserted exhibit hall in a Delaware events center.

Glitches were few, to the great relief of the Democrats’ production team, which oversaw the event from a pair of control rooms in Wilmington and Milwaukee, the original site of the convention before its in-person elements were canceled. The convention had an interactive element, as well, with at least one viewer: President Trump, who reacted in real time, often angrily, to the events unfolding on his screen.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump opted to have his own say on the matter, phoning into Fox News for a live interview on “Hannity” — a breach of past protocol. Presidents have typically deferred to their electoral rivals on the week of a convention.

About 4.6 million people watched Mr. Trump’s half-hour appearance. After he hung up, and the network’s convention coverage began, the Fox News audience fell 36 percent.

Nielsen figures do not capture the entire universe of this week’s viewers, including those who watched on internet livestreams, a number that is difficult to credibly calculate.

As they did during the conventions in 2016, cable channels beat the Big Three broadcast networks. CNN won the week among viewers ages 25 to 54, the most important demographic in the TV news industry, beating even MSNBC. ABC had the highest ratings of the Big Three broadcasters.

The broadcast networks also suffered from weaker lead-ins than in past convention years: Live sports have been curtailed because of the coronavirus, and many TV productions are halted, leaving viewers with reruns and other less appealing fare.

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Record Ratings and Record Chaos on Cable News

Last week, Fox News’s anchors competed for President Trump’s ear about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Tucker Carlson denounced the unrest as “riots.” Sean Hannity unexpectedly took a civil rights angle, speaking “as a person that has now been trained in mixed martial arts for seven straight years” to cast doubt on Officer Derek Chauvin’s actions.

In the midnight hour on Friday, a rerun of Mr. Carlson’s show appears to have grabbed hold of the president’s brainstem, as Mr. Carlson intoned that “rioters are continuing to destroy one of this country’s great cities, unimpeded.” A little after 12:50 a.m., the show panned to a Minneapolis in flames, and at 12:53 a.m., Mr. Trump tweeted that he “can’t stand back & watch this happen.” He concluded, echoing an utterance in 1967 from a bigoted Miami police chief, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

If Twitter is the twisted heart of America’s public conversation, cable news is its aorta, carrying fear and anger, as the rapper and activist Killer Mike put it last week, into the body politic. The coronavirus pandemic and the new urban crisis have made it impossible to look away, and journalists have at times become targets for the police. In this extraordinary news moment, the primacy of this supposedly dying medium has never been clearer, its ratings higher than ever.

But behind the scenes, chaos and uncertainty are also reaching record highs. I spent last week speaking to homebound executives, producers and on-air talent at the three cable news networks and found them wrestling in wildly different ways with an exceptional news moment that does not fit into cable’s familiar boxes: the coronavirus story, the economic crisis, and the protests and fires in the streets of American cities.

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Credit…CNN

The power, and the stress, are clearest at Fox News, by far the most-watched American news channel but one that has been in a rolling corporate crisis since its founder, Roger Ailes, was forced to resign amid sexual harassment allegations almost four years ago. Fox News now occupies a strange position in a shrunken Fox Corporation, whose chairman, Lachlan Murdoch, has sought to pull off an acrobatic feat: collect the abundant profits from the channel while skirting the blame for its missteps in the early days of the pandemic.

Quietly, Mr. Murdoch and his main deputy Viet Dinh, a former Bush administration official, have begun taking a more aggressive approach. Last summer, they hired Raj Shah, a former Trump White House official who led opposition research against Hillary Clinton at the Republican National Committee. And this year, I recently learned, Mr. Shah has begun to build a secret operation, hiring two former reporters for the conservative Washington Free Beacon, Elliott Schwartz and Alex Griswold. (Mr. Schwartz had also run Jeb Bush’s campaign “war room.”) Their job is to defend Fox from criticism from progressive outlets like Media Matters and Sleeping Giants on social media, protect advertising dollars and discredit critics, three people familiar with the work said. (The two former reporters have conspicuously omitted Fox from their Twitter bios.)

The team has also pushed the narrative that the rest of the media played down the threat of coronavirus as egregiously as Fox did, two journalists who have spoken to them said. A Fox spokeswoman, Megan Klein, declined to comment on the new operation. Mr. Griswold said “no comment” and hung up on me before I could ask him a question, and Mr. Schwartz didn’t respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Fox News, Irena Briganti, said the chief executive, Suzanne Scott, wouldn’t be available for an interview.

Fox shifted over the weekend into round-the-clock protest coverage. But Mr. Shah’s new team suggests that the criticism of its coronavirus coverage has stung hosts and alienated advertisers. But it also seems a kind of ineffectual, corporate re-enactment of Mr. Ailes’s once-feared opposition-research tactics, which included private detectives, aggressive hunts for leaks and smear campaigns against reporters. The new Fox executive team shares Mr. Ailes’s ambitions, but doesn’t seem to have the stomach for his tactics.

MSNBC has been scrambling in a different way. The channel thrived from 2017 until earlier this year, lifted by its nonstop coverage of the Trump-Russia story and the story’s denouement in impeachment. It signed up former spies and prosecutors as contributors, and dangled the hope that Robert Mueller would end Mr. Trump’s presidency. But the Russia show came to a disappointing conclusion for its audience with Mr. Trump’s acquittal on Feb. 5, and ratings plummeted.

“We didn’t lose viewers,” MSNBC’s president, Phil Griffin, insisted in an interview. “They may have taken a few days off from watching out of, ‘Oh boy, I’ve got to regroup.’”

MSNBC’s audience numbers did rebound with the coronavirus story, but the network’s DNA is politics, and Covid-19 is not at its heart a political story. Rachel Maddow, the network’s star, saw her audience in the 25-to-54 demographic, the one most prized by advertisers, fall below CNN’s Chris Cuomo for the first time.

“We’re using the same muscles that we use to cover politics covering this pandemic and how the country’s reacting,” Mr. Griffin said.

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Credit…Jesus Aranguren/Associated Press

Behind the scenes, NBC’s corporate dramas continue to unsettle its scattered staff. The new chairman of NBCUniversal’s news group, Cesar Conde, hasn’t described his vision for news. He made his name with an insufficiently covered television coup, Telemundo’s rise against Univision on the back of sexy “narconovelas.” Now, news executives — Mr. Griffin; the NBC News president, Noah Oppenheim, who was conspicuously passed over for the top job; and the senior vice president, Rashida Jones — are waiting to learn what his plan is, and whom Mr. Conde will elevate to carry it out. While they wait, they sought to impose a 3 percent salary cut on the remaining contracts of NBC’s producers and stars, only to face a revolt from the nation’s restive talent agents. They settled for a voluntary 3 percent reduction that its journalists can reverse at any time.

Mr. Conde’s boss, the new NBCUniversal chief executive, Jeff Shell, has suggested in private conversation that he wants to make a more dramatic change at the company’s other cable news network, CNBC, two NBCUniversal executives said. Mr. Shell, the two executives said, is considering turning the network’s prime-time hours, currently occupied by “Shark Tank” reruns and business-focused reality programming like “The Profit,” over to right-wing talk shows. A similar plan was floated years ago — a development executive even met with the talk-radio flamethrower Mark Levin, a CNBC executive said. But it could allow Comcast to extend an olive branch to Mr. Trump and his avid supporters.

CNN once positioned itself between MSNBC and Fox on the political spectrum. But during Mr. Trump’s tenure, the network concluded that there was no profitable middle ground with a president who seeks confrontation with the media. The channel adopted an increasingly political focus, hosting dozens of Democratic primary town halls and debates. It also competes more directly with MSNBC than ever before for audience, offering Don Lemon and Mr. Cuomo as a more emotional, less cerebral alternative to Chris Hayes and Ms. Maddow.

And as much as MSNBC seemed thrown off by the coronavirus, CNN was ready, flexing its still-supple muscles for covering all-consuming news stories. Now it focuses primarily on the coronavirus, interlaced with impassioned and often viral monologues denouncing President Trump.

CNN remains a network identified with and defined by one man, Jeff Zucker, the chairman for news and sports at WarnerMedia as well as CNN’s president since 2013. He runs the 9 a.m. news calls, and his refrain has been to stay on the coronavirus. His fingerprints are all over the programming, and CNN’s confidence tackling the dangerous, physical scrum of breaking news paid off in its vivid coverage of Mr. Floyd’s death and the aftermath. He has been telling his staff for months that the pandemic is the central story, and he told me he anticipated it to dominate the rest of the year.

“Between now and November, there’s no chance it’s a normal political year,” he said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “That’s just not conceivable between now and the end of the year.” And while the network is now focused intensely on the crisis in America’s cities, coronavirus “is still the principal story of our time,” he said.

Lurking in the background for all the networks, though, is the question: How long can this last? Cable news appeared, like much of linear television, to be in terminal decline before Donald Trump turned it into the greatest, most terrifying show on earth.

CNN, the original cable news network that turns 40 on Monday, is at the heart of that question. Its commitment to on-the-scene reporting produced the riveting coverage, and arrest, of its correspondent Omar Jimenez on Friday morning. Its iconic status drew protesters on Friday night to its Atlanta headquarters, where they vandalized its globally recognized logo and defaced the building, putting CNN where it has often found itself in the Zucker years — right in the center of the story.

“They are telling our stories, and you are disgracing their building,” Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, told demonstrators. But Killer Mike, whose real name is Michael Render, spoke for a nation exhausted by the endless adrenaline shots of news and conflict when he told the network to “stop feeding fear and anger every day. Stop making people feel so fearful. Give them hope.” A CNN spokeswoman declined to respond to his comments.

Mr. Zucker, the signature television executive of the Trump era, has more than anyone shaped that always-on, always-breaking, hyper-charged way that news — including politics — is covered nowadays. He has always been a hands-on leader. But now it seems Mr. Zucker may want to drive events even more directly.

Four years ago, he told me he was considering a future in politics. On Thursday, I asked him whether he was interested in the most obvious role, which will be open next year in a city aching for leadership: mayor of New York.

He paused, and said he didn’t want his answer to cause a storm of news.

Then, he said, “New York City is going to need a very strong mayor in the aftermath of this, and I always like a challenge.”

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NBC Late-Night Shows Going Dark Next Week

Image Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show on NBC was already scheduled for a weeklong hiatus starting March 23. Credit…Andrew Harnik/Associated Press“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers” will suspend production next week, NBC said Thursday, making them the biggest daily American television series …

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Democrats Set a TV Ratings Record at Their Las Vegas Debate

The Democratic presidential candidates smashed a ratings record on Wednesday night, drawing a combined audience of 19.7 million to the latest primary debate, Nielsen said on Thursday.

Shown on NBC and MSNBC from the Paris Theater in Las Vegas, the broadcast was the most watched in the history of Democratic presidential primary debates. It beat the previous record-holder from June, when 18.1 million viewers tuned in to NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo for the second Democratic debate of the current election cycle.

Before the Wednesday debate, viewers’ interest in the Democratic matchups had seemed to level off. Since October, an average of roughly six million to eight million people tuned in for the last five contests, according to the Nielsen ratings.

For some context: Last night’s viewership totals across the two networks outperformed two other live prime-time events this year, the Grammy Awards (18.7 million viewers on CBS) and the Golden Globes (18.3 million on NBC).

The Wednesday debate may have generated interest thanks to the addition of a newcomer: Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on television commercials and online ads since entering the race in November.

Mr. Bloomberg is not on the ballot for the next contest — Saturday’s Nevada caucuses — but rival television executives signaled before Wednesday’s debate that viewer interest would be stoked by the prospect of watching the billionaire mix it up with five Democratic rivals.

Mr. Bloomberg seemed sluggish as he tried to fend off frequent attacks from his competitors, most notably by Senator Elizabeth Warren. Nearly eight months after the current cycle’s first Democratic presidential debate, the Las Vegas edition was the most energetic, freewheeling and ferocious so far.

The moderators were Lester Holt and Chuck Todd of NBC, Hallie Jackson of NBC and MSNBC, Vanessa Hauc of Noticias Telemundo and Jon Ralston of The Nevada Independent. Ms. Hauc had a tense face-off with Senator Amy Klobuchar after pressing her on her failure to name the president of Mexico during an interview on Telemundo this week.

The great majority of viewers did not turn away as the two-hour debate went on. In the first hour, which started at 9 p.m. Eastern time, the average combined audience for NBC and MSNBC stood at 19.9 million. In the second hour, 19.4 million were watching, according to Nielsen.

The debate took place at a critical juncture of primary season: After voters in Iowa and New Hampshire had winnowed the field, but before key contests in Nevada, South Carolina and Super Tuesday states.

The first Republican debate from August 2015 — Donald J. Trump’s debut on the debate stage — remains the most watched of primary debates. That broadcast, on Fox News, drew 24 million viewers.

Viewers will not have to wait long for the next episode. CBS is scheduled to broadcast a debate on Tuesday from South Carolina. The moderators will be led by the “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell and the “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King.