Stephen Battaglio on Election Night: A Television History 1948-2012

Election Night: A Television History 1948 - 2012
Election Night: A Television History 1948 – 2012

In November 2012, the United States elected a president. Also right around the same time, author Stephen Battaglio released his latest book, an e-book to be exact, Election Night: A Television History 1948-2012. As described by the publisher, the book “is a fascinating and revealing look at the evolution of U.S. presidential election night broadcasts and how since 1948, this televised event galvanizes the nation. It explores the technical advancements in vote counting, live coverage from the field, how the networks get polling information and call a state for a candidate and how the drama unfolds in the control room. Through the lens of NBC News, Election Night highlights significant commentary by legendary news figures such as Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, John Chancellor, Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert, and Brian Williams.”

The book makes the most of the Kindle platform, utilizing the NBC large video archives, as well as offering historical audio clips in an enhanced edition [available here [or iTunes link here]. To find out more about his latest project, Battaglio accepted my invitation for another interview (I first interviewed him in 2011 regarding his book on NBC Today Show’s 60-year history.)

Tim O’Shea: You pull data for the book, including congressional hearings as well as the David Brinkley Papers/Archives. What was the biggest surprise/most interesting aspect of delving into Brinkley’s papers?

Stephen Battaglio: I loved David Brinkley. He is my favorite TV news anchor of all time. The humor that he managed to inject in his on-air commentary came across in his papers, especially in personal letters and internal memos. What you saw on screen was his true self.

O’Shea: This project is a multimedia property, which includes audio and video clips, how did you go about picking what to include?

Battaglio: A lot of it had to do with what was available in the NBC News archives. Every hour of Election Night 1960 exists as does everything after 1976. But there was little from 1964 or 1968. So if we did not have the most dramatic moments of the election coverage we tried to offer something that was representative of how it looked that night. We also included important political TV moments of the 1960s such as President Johnson’s “Daisy” ad and the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago. I think TV news footage is a great way to learn history. We have about 90 minutes of it in the enhanced version of the e-book which works great on the iPad.

O’Shea: But you can read a text-only version on a Kindle.

Battaglio: Correct. There are additional photos in the non-enhanced edition.

O’Shea: While the main focus is the television history, I appreciated you delving into the radio influence on politics prior to television”s impact. Had you been well-versed in radio’s impact before embarking on the book?

Battaglio: No, and it was important. In any history of television, you need to look at radio first. One thing I learned is that the development of radio journalism was restrained by the government in the 1930s at the behest of the newspaper industry, which feared competition. That all went away with the gathering storm in Europe. It was fascinating to learn that regular radio broadcasting began on KDKA in 1920 with the presidential election results.

O’Shea: You focus a lot on the years when the broadcast news networks were dominant. Did we see the same level of punditry or speculation that we see today in 24-hour cable news?

Battaglio: There was not the immediacy or saturation that we see today. But like now, there was plenty of prognosticating. In the days before the 1968 election – the three-way race with Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace – there was intense speculation over how none of the candidates would get 270 electoral votes and that the presidency would be decided by the House of Representatives.

O’Shea: Of the anchors/reporters you interviewed, would you say Tom Brokaw was one that had seen the most change in the election night TV history?

Battaglio: Brokaw provides a connectivity to NBC’s past and present. He worked with Brinkley, who was part of NBC’s first Election Night on TV in 1952, and he’s part of the team that handled the 2012 coverage. No other news anchor can give you that kind of historical perspective.

O’Shea: In writing about the RFK Assassination, were there elements about the tragedy’s coverage that you had not known?

Battaglio: That the networks were really hesitant over providing wall-to-wall coverage of another Kennedy funeral. They were worried that the public couldn’t handle it. No matter how contentious America seems today, there has never been anything like 1968. We include a clip of David Brinkley expressing fear that the country was headed towards a police state. It was pretty mind-blowing.

O’Shea: Of all the technological innovations introduced in election coverage, what do you think was the biggest game changer?

Battaglio: The use of exit polling to call election results in 1980. It was so fast and accurate, it was seen as interfering with the process as you could call the presidential election before polls on the west coast closed.

O’Shea: Is there any chance you would ever consider doing a history of late night TV?

Battaglio: Bill Carter’s books on late night have covered that territory pretty well. I’m happy to take suggestions on other TV related subjects. Especially from publishers.