The CBS News executives kept referring to it as a “Thanksgiving dinner table” on Monday, but there was no turkey or stuffing on the round, clear Lucite surface dominating the studio on Manhattan’s far West Side.
But extra leaves had been added to ensure enough room for the network’s top anchors to take seats Tuesday for what is expected to be an election night for the ages.
Even though it was merely a rehearsal, the “CBS This Morning” studio already radiated the energy that flows through a news operation when the votes have finally been counted after a long and contentious campaign. The network’s team prepared for its coverage, which starts at 3:30 p.m. Pacific time Tuesday -- by using randomly generated (but not actual or projected) results on the votes for presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
The gathering included “CBS Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley, “CBS This Morning” co-anchors Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King, “Face the Nation” moderator and political director John Dickerson and network elder statesman Bob Schieffer, who has been a part of CBS’ election coverage since 1972. They gave their real time analysis based on scenarios presented by executive editor Steve Capus from his seat in a darkened control room surrounded by dozens of flat screens.
“Norah, you’ll take us through the 8 o’clock poll closing in this order …,” Capus said, before reeling off the names of a number of states that will be pivotal in deciding which candidate gets to the necessary 270 electoral votes and the White House.
The table is off and running, noting the influence of the heavy Latino turnout that has already been apparent in early voting. Looking at counties shaded a hypothetical Republican red, the focus turned to Trump’s position on trade and the loss of manufacturing jobs. “CBS This Morning” co-anchor Charlie Rose led an analysis discussion with producers standing in for the actual contributors who will appear on the night.
“Everybody’s here,” CBS News President David Rhodes said as he watched the proceedings on the studio floor. “Everybody brings something to the conversation.”
No one has to cram or do a crash course before show time. They have all spent more than a year feeding viewers’ unprecedented interest in the contest between Clinton, the former first lady, U.S senator and secretary of State, and Trump, the real estate mogul-turned reality TV star.
In the months leading to the big night, O’Donnell added online stories to a running Google document, giving her access to information on every state that she can share after each poll closes. Capus joked that the company had to buy additional computer storage space to accommodate her.
“I’m a preparer,” said O’Donnell, a longtime Washington correspondent before she joined the network’s morning program in 2012. “I love this stuff. This is candy for me.”
While CBS will try to keep a conversational tone in its analysis – an approach that has helped it gain viewers in the morning – Rhodes has his own personal mantra about election coverage.
“People want to know who won,” he said.
Although the round, family-style table and the natural brick texture of the building that once was a dairy barn add some warmth to the CBS set, Rhodes pointed out how the projected electoral map — and its tally — always needs to be present.
“The map will be there as much at it can,” Rhodes said. “That’s why viewers tune in.”
Rhodes has also eschewed the traditional sequestering of the network “decision desk,” where analysts drill into the voting data and make the call on whether a state is red for Republican or blue for Democrat. On Tuesday, CBS will have elections director Anthony Salvanto and his team stationed just a few yards from the anchors and readily available to explain the incoming votes.
“It’s better to put them all out on camera,” said Rhodes. “There’s nothing to hide.”
Across from Salvanto is a social media specialist, who will send out the state-by-state election calls on Twitter as soon as the decision desk has determined the results. The tweets will go out as soon as they’re ready, even if the network hasn’t yet reported the information on the air.
Dickerson notes before the rehearsal that the Wednesday following an election has a “day-after-the-wedding feeling” for campaign reporters, who must plan every moment of their lives leading up to the vote. But some correspondents and commentators will be glad to see the 2016 White House race in their rear-view mirrors.
Schieffer recently shared with viewers his dismay over some of the R-rated discourse during the campaign, saying it had left “an unsavory stain on everything and everyone it touched.”
On Tuesday night, Schieffer will be prepared to elaborate on those feelings with the lyrics from a wistful, iconic 1960s Simon & Garfunkel hit (he had a printed copy with him at Monday’s rehearsal). No spoilers here as to which song it is, but it won’t be a happy tune.