Comedy spoofs by Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert have made the U.S. presidential race a made-for-television event, but on Tuesday many voters will turn to the Internet to watch election night coverage.
Major media organizations expect record-breaking traffic on their websites as they follow results in the race between Republican John McCain and his Democratic opponent Barack Obama.
Cable network Current TV is taking its coverage a step further, relying entirely on Web users to provide its news content.
TV networks’ plans for heightened Web coverage would seem to serve their audiences well. This past Friday, TV trackers at Nielsen Media released a study suggesting Web surfing and watching TV go together. Thirty percent of online activity at home happens while users are watching TV, the study found.
“Television will follow the Internet as much as the Internet will follow television, which I think is a relatively new phenomenon,” said Frank Gilliam, dean of the school of public affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“When you watch CNN the commentators have laptops in front of them. That tells you all you need to know,” he said.
Among major news services, CNN predicts more than 1 billion page views on its Web site, and has planned a “Your Races” feature where users can get updates on even the most remote races, from Congressional contests to state ballot measures.
The New York Times is asking visitors to its Web site to take pictures of their polling places and upload them, providing an election day snapshot of the nation. The news sites will also have the up-to-the-minute election maps.
As does CNN, the New York Times expects to have record traffic on election day, said Jim Roberts, associate managing editor at the paper, who added that the site has come a long way since the 2004 U.S. presidential election.
“Our imagination is bigger and our tool box is much bigger,” Roberts said.
The newspaper, which topped U.S. newspapers in September with 20 million Web visitors, will gear itself more to live updates on the Web than it did four years ago, he said.
On a smaller scale, political Web sites Town Hall and The Huffington Post will follow the election from conservative and liberal viewpoints, respectively. Nonprofit group Video the Vote plans to post up to 1,000 video reports, focusing on any problems at the polls in a form of “citizen journalism.”
Election day will be an experiment at the cable channel Current TV, which is run by Democratic former Vice President Al Gore and businessman Joel Hyatt.
Through a partnership with social networking sites Digg and Twitter, the channel will rely on Internet users to provide its news content that day. The channel’s TV screen will be a crowded and sometimes disconnected “dashboard” of text and video created or chosen by Internet users, Hyatt said.
“The public is generally quite turned off by what is now conventional political coverage,” he said. “It is punditry that is strident, partisan and really unappealing and what the public wants is to be part of the conversation.”
But UCLA’s Gilliam noted that while the Internet allows for greater civic participation, it also can offer up its own divisive discourse.
“People make comments on the Internet that one would not hear on television,” he said.