Top TV Stories of 2008: The election - VIDEOS
by Allison Waldman, posted Jan 2nd 2009 2:00PM
What was the top TV story of the year? The choice was obvious to all of us, and probably all of you, too: The election. The 2008 race for the White House was not only historic, it was dramatic and played out more on TV with recognizable star personas than any election in recent memory.
And like a great TV show, it was a season-long run of highs and lows, tension and release, defeat and victory. Along the way, Americans made a choice about who will run the country for the next four years, but they were also entertained by a near constant barrage of media coverage in the form of maximum cable news, thousands of commercials, daily political commentary both serious and comic, a plethora of debates, and -- naturally -- Saturday Night Live's take on it all.
It all started about a year ago in the cold of Iowa and New Hampshire...
1) David vs. Goliath - Obama vs. Clinton
It was the late Tim Russert who pegged the Democratic race between Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former first lady and New York Senator Hillary Clinton as David vs. Goliath. Just going by recognition alone, Hillary seemed to have a huge advantage. The Democrats started with a bunch of candidates, names like Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd, but it all came down to Hillary and Barack.
Obama wasn't just competing with a Clinton. He was up against the Clintons -- plural. Nobody gave him a chance to really beat the Clinton machine, and that just added to the drama. And TV caught them both in the glare of the spotlight.
Hillary's best moment was when she teared up in New Hampshire; Obama's was his speech on race that came after the Reverend Wright debacle. But to really see how tough the battle was, watch this clip from one of their 20 debates:
2) Cable connections
As the candidates battled in the primaries, both Republicans and Democrats, the cable news channels were going at it, too. MSNBC was the liberal left. Fox News was the conservative right. CNN was somewhere in the middle.
MSNBC was perceived as pro-Obama, particularly in the primary battle with Hillary. MSNBC's David Shuster was suspended in March for an off-hand remark about how the Clintons were seemingly "pimping out" daughter Chelsea.
However, on Morning Joe, conservative Joe Scarborough was making waves by not going along with the group-think. Hardball's Chris Matthews made headlines with some of his comments, and Keith Olbermann poked at Fox News' Bill O'Reilly every night.
But the political strife at MSNBC showed up on air during the Democratic convention coverage, when Olbermann and Matthews seemed to fight for supremacy and Scarborough let his true feelings show. Still, overall, the election did a lot for MSNBC. The ratings were up. Rachel Maddow got her own show and emerged as a major star for the channel. Another winner was David Gregory, who anchored the daily Race to the White House, which showed him in a positive light that likely helped him win the moderator's role on Meet The Press.
3) Obama the celebrity
While Hillary and Barack dominated the airwaves with their big story, including flashy supporting players like Bill Clinton and Reverend Wright, Arizona Senator John McCain had relatively no trouble emerging as the Republican nominee. It wasn't too surprising that he vanquished Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee and Rudy Guiliani, especially because he was a bigger TV star. He had been TV's darling, appearing regularly on talk shows like David Letterman and The Daily Show. He was so comfortable on TV, he even sang Barbra Streisand songs on Saturday Night Live. McCain called the media his "base," and anticipated being their favorite in the election.
Even though McCain had done all those TV shows and could crack a joke or spin a one-liner, it was Obama who was considered Joe Cool. Also, when this election became a referendum on change, it was Obama who was perceived as the transformational candidate, especially because McCain was so well known and had been on TV for nearly ten years as a popular political leader.
By the summer, once Hillary had finally bowed out and before the conventions, McCain's campaign decided that they would try to dull the Obama surge by labeling him a celebrity. They compared him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Remember?
4) The Palin Factor
When the celebrity angle didn't work, when the poll numbers didn't change dramatically, the McCain campaign switched strategies. They saw the climax of the Democratic convention with Obama delivering his acceptance speech in the football stadium, in front of 80,000 -- and a tremendous TV audience -- and knew they had to steal the spotlight back in some dramatic way. McCain made a maverick move. He chose a virtually unknown female politician as his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
Palin wasn't virtually unknown for long. Sarah Palin was an immediate hit with crowds, and by the time she gave her acceptance speech at the Republican convention, she was a powerhouse. She was an especially good choice, it seemed, because she was as vital and youthful as Obama. In her initial speeches, she was charismatic and attractive. TV loved her; her Republican convention speech helped to put McCain-Palin ahead of Obama-Biden in some polls.
McCain's decision seemed brilliant ... until TV upended Sarah Palin. When Palin sat for interviews, face to face first with Charles Gibson on ABC, then on CBS News with Katie Couric, she couldn't handle the questioning. She looked great, but she didn't have the stuff to back it up. Because of these stumbles, the October 8 VP debate garnered huge ratings, as supporters and detractors alike wanted to see if the could hold her own against Joe "The Bloviator" Biden.
5) It's the economy, stupid
For some pundits, the election was decided after the Palin pick. Showing how much TV had a part in everything, when MSNBC caught Republican talking heads Peggy Noonan and Mike Murphy speaking with their mikes still open, declaring that McCain's campaign was over, that made headlines. The media was as big as the campaigns.
Other media, especially Fox News, couched it differently. It was the economic collapse in September -- Lehman Brothers going under and the Congressional bailout -- that torpedoed McCain. The ruling party, the Republicans, couldn't overcome the financial disaster.
Still, McCain tried to make strides in the midst of the crisis, suspending his campaign and threatening to not appear at the first debate in Mississippi. MSNBC's Countdown reported it like this:
6) History before our eyes
McCain and Obama did have three debates, and those televised forums were not the game-changers that McCain needed. Depending on who you spoke to, both candidates won (or lost), but most agree McCain provided the best (or worst) moments; he called Obama "that one" in the second debate and wouldn't look at him in the first. By debate number three, the biggest star to emerge that night was Joe the Plumber.
By November 4, all the TV news magic screens -- the favorite computer gizmo of the season -- showed that the electoral map was leaning heavily in Obama's favor. By the time Obama appeared at Grant Park in Chicago, striding out with his Huxtable-cute family in tow, history had been made. The first African-American president had been elected. CNN's coverage was especially moving:
7) The TV moments we'll remember
The election of 2008 will be remembered for more than President Barack Obama and the defeat of John McCain. Lipstick on a pig, mavericks, Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere, Hillary's sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits, 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling ... and TV was there for every moment, with new stars like the aforementioned Rachel Maddow gaining prominence, even as the formidable Tim Russert died suddenly during primary season.
YouTube caught every appearance by the candidates, and the cable news outlets -- CNN, Fox and MSNBC -- were more important than the networks in shaping opinion. Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had a huge influence on the electorate, with TDS doing its usual bang-up convention coverage. Colbert also injected himself into the process with a bid to get in on the South Carolina primary. Both shows had the major players of the campaign in for interviews. In the end, TV had truly played a part.
While it's clear that the election was influenced by The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, it's also true that Saturday Night Live benefited from the contest, especially in October and November. Tina Fey's return to SNL to play Sarah Palin was highly anticipated, pumping up the ratings for NBC's 33-year-old comedy show to the extent that SNL became more relevant now than it's been in years.
Because of Fey's Palin, the real Palin went on the show to sort of prove that she was in on the joke. And on the brink of the election, McCain returned to SNL trying to win over voters by kidding himself. His appearance was very funny, including his interaction with Fey, but it was probably too late to change voters' minds.
When the votes were finally counted, the choice was made. In retrospect, we see now that the Obama/McCain election had dominated television. And it was, without question, the Top Story of 2008.
More top TV stories of 2008