For television news organizations, Election Night is like the Super Bowl — the year's best chance to show off their talent and technological innovations.
A couple of folks sitting behind a desk reading numbers? How 1950s.
Tuesday will see holograms and virtual reality, a "magic wall" and a "launchpad," and two New York City landmarks — Rockefeller Center and Times Square — turned into TV studios.
NBC News will imprint a map of the United States on the Rockefeller Center skating rink, turning states blue or red as they are called for Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain. Giant banners for each candidate will climb 16 stories up 30 Rockefeller Plaza, marking the progress to 270 electoral votes.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)
Three giant video screens put in place by ABC News will loom over Times Square, where Bill Weir will be stationed to get the reaction of people watching the vote.
"We wanted the scale and scope of the coverage to match the moment, to match the interest and enthusiasm that we have been seeing from the public," said David Chalian, ABC News political director.
Election Night is one of the very few remaining events where broadcast news divisions know they will have prime time to themselves. The competition among ABC, CBS and NBC is intense. The cable networks CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC — whose business every night is news — approach equal footing now. And they're not the only choices viewers have.
Besides providing up-to-date information, networks feel pressure just to catch someone's eye.
Long way from days of plastic GeorgiaOne important lesson about this came in 1976, when NBC built a giant map of the country as a backdrop in their studio. The states were lit in white, and were turned red if Democrat Jimmy Carter won, blue if they backed Republican Gerald Ford. After some early glitches — the plastic Georgia almost melted from a hot light in rehearsal — the map became an instant hit.
Four years later, all three broadcasters had big maps. The colors eventually became uniform to what they are now: blue for Democrats, red for Republicans.
"People are becoming more sophisticated," said Phil Alongi, executive producer of NBC News specials and supervisor of the construction of virtual reality studios for Ann Curry and Chuck Todd. "If you do just the traditional stuff, they'll turn away."
Despite all this work, the most memorable prop of the past few Election Nights was simple and cheap: the white board where the late Tim Russert distilled the 2000 election to its essence — "Florida, Florida, Florida."
"Outdoor set or indoor set, gizmos of all kinds, are not as important as how smart the people are, and how articulate and how clear they can be," said Paul Friedman, senior vice president of CBS News.
Katie Couric will anchor the CBS coverage, with Jeff Greenfield and Bob Schieffer as her top analysts. She'll head immediately onto a Webcast when the TV coverage reaches its 2 a.m. scheduled end.
The campaign has stretched so long, between primary nights and debates, it's almost forgotten that it will be the first general Election Night as the faces of their networks for Couric, ABC's Charles Gibson and NBC's Brian Williams.
Williams will be joined at NBC's anchor desks by analysts Tom Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell. The three-person team is a subtle change of the dynamic at NBC following Russert's death in June. The Brokaw-Russert team was the nation's most popular in 2000 and 2004.
"We're not going to deny we're going to miss Tim," Alongi said.
ABC's coverage will originate from the "Good Morning America" studios in Times Square. Gibson will team with Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos. It won't be like New Year's Eve, but Chalian said he's interested in seeing if people gather in Times Square to watch the news unfold.
The Fox broadcast network will air coverage anchored by Shepard Smith, one of five separate TV, radio or Internet newscasts to originate from Fox's Manhattan studios. Brit Hume anchors the Fox News Channel coverage. It's a swan song for Hume; he'll be cutting back from daily on-air work at Fox.
Fox is using the night to debut its "launchpad," a technology that uses a control pad to allow reporters to quickly customize visual elements like results, maps and live shots.
CNN has its own new technology, following the "magic wall" that allows John King to bend and shape information — and was parodied recently on "Saturday Night Live." It will have a virtual-reality Capitol to track control of Congress, and a holograph projection device that can make it appear someone being interviewed in a separate city is in CNN's New York studio.
"It might open up a different dynamic in a live interview, if people would feel like they're in the same room," said David Bohrman, CNN senior vice president and Washington bureau chief.
As if CNN already won't have enough people in the studio — 14 analysts alone, not counting reporters or the anchor team of Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper and Campbell Brown.
David Gregory will anchor the MSNBC coverage, trying to get a word in edgewise with the team of Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Eugene Robinson. Curry, looking at exit poll information, and Todd, crunching the numbers, will do double duty on NBC and MSNBC.
Jim Lehrer leads the PBS team. Lest you think PBS will be stodgy, note that its correspondents will be posting reports on Twitter.
More specialized outlets will also be following Election Night, like the business networks CNBC and Fox Business Network. It's an opportunity for fledgling Fox, which has seen the economic crisis as a chance to establish itself much like the Monica Lewinsky scandal helped establish Fox News Channel a decade ago, said Neil Cavuto, senior vice president and managing editor of the network.
Fox Business Network will keep track of the overseas markets as election results come in, report on the probable economic policies of the incoming administration and hear from guests like Steve Forbes and Donald Trump.
"We're going all-out," Cavuto said.
Two networks aimed at African-Americans, BET and TV One, will also be providing special coverage on a night that could see the election of the first black president. Univision, the nation's leading network for Spanish-speaking viewers, will also have Election Night coverage.
And if the night is getting too serious, there's always Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's live one-hour special on Comedy Central, at 10 p.m. EDT.
No "magic wall" is promised.