Saturday May 24, 2008
It’s a kind of magic – high-tech board wows viewers
BY FOO YEE PING
CNN’s Magic Wall and its personalities are charting the US presidential election coverage into an aesthetically exciting arena.
IT WAS shortly after 9pm on Tuesday, the night of the Kentucky and Oregon primaries, and Anderson Cooper was running through possible stories to lead off his show with.
Two choices – the Democratic presidential nomination race and senator Edward Kennedy’s brain tumour – were available for Anderson Cooper 360°, watched by 1.2 million American viewers daily.
“It’s still such a fascinating race,” Cooper said, referring to the primary season. “We have been criticised by the Clinton campaign for saying that her bid is over,” he told four foreign correspondents invited for a behind-the-scenes look at CNN’s political coverage from its New York studio.
Ratings for Anderson Cooper 360°, according to news reports citing Nielsen Media Research, have leapt compared to last year, beating even Larry King Live.
So what’s his take on being CNN’s hottest name?
He laughed saying: “I don’t think that’s true.
“CNN has more popular anchors around,” Cooper said. “I wasn’t even the most popular guy in high school.”
Here’s a man who is mentioned in local gossip pages; even his hair gets talked about. “Trademark snow”, was how The New York Times described it. Actor Ashton Kutcher once, tongue-in-cheek, called him “S.O.B” because his wife Demi Moore loved watching his show.
Personalities aside, the race to the White House has drummed up the TV war. Among cable news networks, CNN is tops among viewers aged 25 to 54, the group most wanted by advertisers, edging out Fox News and MSNBC.
David Bohrman, CNN senior vice-president and Washington DC bureau chief, said the 24-hour cable TV network had been more exciting, bigger and grander in its approach to news.
“We are also less opinionated,” he said.
Its political debates are hugely watched, most of them beating other networks. A duel between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on Jan 31 led to 8.3 million viewers, the highest ever for a primary debate on cable TV.
Still, it's not all rosy at the top.
“There are moments when everybody hates you. People get annoyed for a series of reasons. Everyone is unhappy with the media at some point. We’re the easy target,” Cooper said.
CNN is broadcasting its political coverage from the state-of-the-art New York studio, the largest bureau outside its Atlanta headquarters.
At the Election Centre on Tuesday evening, a big team was assembled for its news programme. Staff researched incoming data, analysts were in place and anchors Wolf Blitzer, Lou Dobbs and Campbell Brown took their turns under the spotlight.
“The numbers are going strong. I thought the ratings would drop after Super Tuesday but it went up still,” said Bohrman.
Most media organisations had thought the presidential nominees would be known by Super Tuesday, Feb 5.
“Our budget has been blown because we thought this would be over by February,” CNN political editor Mark Preston said.
They are not complaining, though, as the political season has been kind to CNN, which translates to better ratings.
Latest statistics showed that 605,000 Americans tuned in to the network’s coverage of the Kentucky and Oregon primaries on Tuesday. MSNBC posted 502,000 and Fox News Network 495,000.
The 10pm slot that night, anchored by Cooper, took in 1.8 million viewers, followed by Fox with 1.5 million.
Preston said political sentiments towards the White House race were reverberating across the United States.
“Everyone has an opinion about it. People have been hit either by gas or house prices.”
As one CNN spokesman put it: “The environment has never been like this before. There is a great appetite now for political news, so we invested a lot into our political coverage. The emphasis is on the use of technology to make our presentation appealing and aesthetic.”
CNN, according to the spokesman said, wanted to have great visuals and graphics, the best cameras, colour and lighting.
“John King (the chief national correspondent) and the Magic Wall really caught on,” Bohrman said of the multi-touch board which he initially discovered at a military defence trade show.
The interactive screen allows King to analyse data for viewers in a much more colourful way, just by tapping on the maps and charts.
The Magic Wall is CNN’s pride and joy.
When something went wrong with it the night before the Kentucky and Oregon contests, “the notion of the Wall falling apart was unimaginable. It was like CNN was about to crumble,” Cooper joked.
However, the Time Warner Company isn’t the only one using the high-tech tool. Fox News Channel has its own called “Bill Board”.
The jury’s still out on its slogan “the most trusted name in news” but for now, CNN can lay claim to reaching out to 90 million American households.