If the wild, unpredictable 2016 presidential campaign is a reality show starring Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, think of election night as the series finale.
Based on the record-shattering ratings for the debates and all-time audience highs for the cable news networks during the last year, it’s likely that Tuesday will be the most-watched night of election coverage ever.
The current record for election coverage is 71.5 million viewers who watched across 13 networks in 2008 when President Obama was elected, according to Nielsen.
“Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are obviously not the most popular candidates, but they are probably the most watched candidates in terms of ratings when it comes to news coverage,” said Jay Wallace, executive vice president of news and editorial for Fox News. “It’s been a remarkable ride.”
The expected massive audience for election night coverage on Tuesday offers the cable news networks and the broadcast news divisions a major showcase for their on-air talent and resources.
Other outlets are trying to cash in as well. ABC’s daytime program “The View” will get a live airing on Lifetime. CBS late-night host Stephen Colbert will react in real time to the news in a live special airing on Showtime. MTV will cover the vote from its old “Total Request Live” studio in Times Square. BuzzFeed will feature its political reporters in coverage from its New York headquarters, which will be streamed over Twitter.
Vice Media’s nascent cable network Viceland is using the election to try its hand at a live telecast — a special election edition of the comedy show “Desus & Mero.” The comics will riff on the results late Tuesday night.
“So much energy has been around the debates and the candidates,” said Nick Weidenfeld, president of programming for Viceland. “We want to be part of that conversation.”
But for the traditional TV news outlets, Tuesday is the equivalent of the Super Bowl, as their hours of extended coverage will reach more viewers with election results coverage than any other night of the year.
“It’s a defining night for a news division,” said Steve Capus, executive editor of CBS News. “All of your MVPs are in the game. Everything that was done for years now leads up to this moment.”
CBS will give prime-time exposure to its “CBS This Morning” team of Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell on election night. CBSN, the division’s digital channel, is expecting record traffic from viewers who want to stream coverage over the Web.
NBC News will transform the area surrounding its Rockefeller Center headquarters into “Democracy Plaza,” bathing the concrete canyon in midtown Manhattan with red, white and blue lights. The iconic electoral college map — first conceived of at NBC 40 years ago — will take shape in the skating rink for coverage on NBC and MSNBC.
ABC News will stream coverage throughout the day on Facebook Live before heading to its Times Square Studio for prime-time coverage on the broadcast network.
The election has become a business bonanza as well. The strong demand for advertising time on the night is consistent with what the networks have seen throughout the year for the debates. Cable news networks have been the major beneficiaries. CNN is expected to hit $1 billion in profit in 2016, a first in the history of the network, while Fox News profit is projected to reach $1.67 billion, according SNL Kagan. Profit for MSNBC is expected to grow 19% to $279.6 million.
Although Trump has accused the media of helping to “rig” the election, network news executives say that rhetoric will have no effect on how they present the results.
Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief for CNN, said his network is already highly transparent in showing how votes are counted and analyzed.
“We use every tool imaginable to help the viewer understand where the race is going and why,” Feist said. “[CNN Chief National Correspondent] John King can walk through with our viewers what is happening in a particular state, where is the outstanding vote, where is the vote coming from, and help engage our viewers in the same thought process that our decision team is having on election night.”
King’s “magic wall” — a touch screen he uses that brings up voting data and state configurations that get a candidate to 270 electoral votes – has become a staple of CNN’s coverage.
Fox News is unveiling a new studio on election night that will allow its anchors Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly to have easier access to its “decision desk” — where analysts pore over the voting results and decide when to call a state and its electoral votes for one of the candidates.
In 2012, Kelly created a viral video moment when she marched through the halls of Fox News headquarters to get an answer from the desk about the results in Ohio. (Republican strategist Karl Rove caused a stir during Fox’s coverage as he refused to accept data that showed GOP candidate Mitt Romney had no chance to win the state). She won’t have to travel as far if any of the desk’s calls are disputed this year because the analysts will be sequestered backstage.
Just how long election night goes is an open question as the national polls have tightened in the last week. Obama’s victories were announced in the 11 p.m. EST hour of coverage in 2008 and 2012.
In 2004, when the results of the race between President George W. Bush and John Kerry were decided by the electoral votes in Ohio, none of the networks called the race on election night. They waited until Kerry made his concession speech the following day.
The networks’ coverage of Trump versus Clinton could head into the wee hours of Wednesday as well.
“This is a tight election no matter how you look at it and it’s going to take a while to count the votes,” Feist said. “I don’t see us projecting a winner particularly early this time, but anything can happen.”