For TV networks, a cautious, unentertaining night

It was perplexing, Bob Schieffer told his CBS viewers, a bumper crop of new furrows flexing on his already craggy brow. Why would Mitt Romney spend some of the last precious few hours of his campaign Tuesday on a visit to the Cleveland area, one of the most solidly Democratic areas in the swing state of Ohio?

In the end, Schieffer could only shake his head. “Maybe he was just trying to tie up traffic to keep Democrats from going to vote,” he suggested.

Schieffer’s words were spoken by a tongue firmly embedded in his cheek, but his confusion seemed genuine enough.

It was a strange, cautious and curiously unentertaining television election night, with networks seemingly reluctant to draw conclusions from their own data.

Barack Obama’s easy, early victory in 2008 concealed some deep uncertainties among TV news executives, who still bore the scars of messy election nights in 2000 (when they seemed to be throwing darts, blindfolded, in deciding who won Florida’s decisive electoral votes) and 2004 (when they were misled by data from cranky voters who apparently lied to exit pollsters).

The red flags raised by those experiences were still fluttering in the breeze this time around. Virtually right up to 11:15 p.m., when the networks started calling the election for Obama, they seemed mired in doubt.

Projections flowed slowly and erratically in the first hours after polls began closing on the East Coast at 7 p.m. After three hours of returns, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News all were showing different Electoral College scoreboards.

At times, the networks even seemed to be warning against trusting their own treacherous technology. “Beware of glancing at the wall,” CNN’s John King told viewers of his network’s so-called Magic Wall, a computerized device that continuously flashed data, graphics and possibly dispensed ice cream. “Looking at early results, sometimes they’re misleading.”

The networks’ expensive but dithering gadgets and anchormen were even beaten to the punch by Republicans like Sarah Palin and Peggy Noonan, part of a steady parade that conceded defeat during interviews on Fox News starting nearly an hour before the TV talking heads rendered their verdict.

The election’s peculiar mathematics — 41 states and the District of Columbia so lopsided that their outcomes were decided months ago, the other nine too tight for the networks to call — left a lot of empty airtime to fill in the early hours, and at times you could practically hear brain cells imploding as anchors tried to think of something to say.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer gaily prattled on about his network’s plan to light up the Empire State Building blue for an Obama victory, red for Romney. (When a glitch unexpectedly turned the building completely white, Twitter erupted in national derision.) Katie Couric, who returned from her new job hosting a daytime TV show to join ABC’s coverage, tried to figure out who was ahead by counting naughty-and-nice tweets about the candidates.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow developed a weird verbal tic — every time she used the name of a state, she preceded it with the words “the great state of” — that seemed certain to end in homicide. And ABC redefined the standard for journalistic scoops with a breathless report that Obama had prepared speeches for both a win and a loss, while Romney had only a victory speech in his pocket.

The iffy coverage may have been due in part to the transitional nature of the network reporting teams, who seemed to be passing a generational baton Tuesday night. There were an unusual number of first-time anchors, including ABC’s Diane Sawyer, CBS’ Scott Pelley, MSNBC’s Maddow and Bret Baier, and Megyn Kelly of Fox News.

But there were also a startling number of network war horses making what might be their final election-night appearance: ABC’s Barbara Walters, whose first big network assignment was covering a visit to India by first lady Jackie Kennedy. CBS’ Schieffer, who leapt into the journalism big time with his coverage of the Kennedy assassination. Fox News’ Brit Hume, who became a star shining light onto the dark underside of the Nixon White House. NBC’s Tom Brokaw, who covered Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial years.

Whatever the cause, it wasn’t a memorable night for the networks. The best line was spoken on a channel, Current, whose viewers are outnumbered by leprechauns and unicorns. Its coverage was led by its founder, Al Gore, who, when asked what election night is like for candidates, deadpanned: “Sometimes it goes on for 36 days.”