Arguably, MSNBC had the most eyebrow-raising evening yesterday during their marathon election coverage. Right out of the gate at seven o’clock they began calling races. There was the Michele Bachmann hypnosis moment and the related Chris Matthews tingle moment. (And an unrelated but still enjoyable Chris Matthews “Name the Cuts!” moment, and a Joe Scarborough “You’re Not Listening to the Facts!” moment.) It was colorful television because MSNBC decided to stick largely with its center-left stance, covering the elections through a panel helmed by a sarcastic Keith Olbermann and featuring an irate Matthews and a quizzical Rachel Maddow. The Wrap even gave the network its highest grade for the evening. But entertaining television or no, in the ratings, it was absolutely stomped by Fox News.
The early viewership ratings for the 8-11 hour are in, and according to Times Twitter Tot Brian Stelter, MSNBC pulled in 1.94 million viewers. CNN pulled in a slightly more respectable 2.42 million. And Fox News, well, they drew more than both rivals combined, landing a whopping 6.96 million viewers.
This was due in part to the fact that they had the splashiest commentator: Sarah Palin, who had just effectively flexed her political muscles for the first time in this election by endorsing candidates across the country. (They also had Karl Rove, who has steered many an election himself.) And they regularly trounce their rivals during coverage of national news events anyway. But it’s notable that Fox News is getting lauded here and there for something for which they’re not traditionally congratulated: subtlety. In their own moment of triumph, they pulled back slightly on their usual hysterical right-wing shtick and invited Democratic campaign manager Joe Trippi and new liberal analyst Juan Williams to sit at the desk. Now, to be fair, they were still Fox. Dana Milbank has an excellent rundown of their victory dances throughout the day. But over at Time, James Poniewozik points out that the network “actually seemed to have the most reserved coverage in tone of the three big cablers, going with a more reserved set and less flashy graphics (granted, by cable news standards) than its competitors. A whiteboard was even employed.”
It’s true: Watching CNN, with its notably non-seething horde of dry commentators (Two tables were required! And an uncountable number of iPads!), was an exercise in ADD. Their graphics, moving wall displays, and 3-D Star Trek hologram rooms were confusing and even frustrating. There was one image that rendered the seats of Congress into something that looked like a BlackBerry keyboard — with spinning keys — that was utterly indecipherable. And even though Anderson Cooper’s panel included voices from various sides of the aisle, it felt like the same old “Team CNN,” just as Olbermann, Maddow, and Matthews felt like “Team MSNBC.” Even though Palin and Rove are paid by Fox, they are stars and feel like they come from outside of the cable news machine.
In all likelihood, Fox was able to pull off the most appealing coverage because they were on the winning team. After months and months of constant battling for their side, the network was finally able to blithely and confidently stroll across the finish line. There was no way MSNBC’s prime-time anchors weren’t going to come across as bitter, no matter how hard they tried to be logical and analytical. And CNN — well, without having a side to fight for, they relied on other bells and whistles to amp up the excitement. As usual, such trickery didn’t do the trick.