Gay is the television critic.
As expected, television played it safe last night until Ohio -- and then the gates opened.
About 11:13 last night, NBC's Brian Williams suddenly fell silent and the camera panned a huge audience at Rockefeller Plaza. "President Barack Obama has become the fourth Democrat to be elected to a second term." And with that -- television's first announcement that the end of the most expensive campaign in history was finally over. The rest of the networks quickly followed. (ABC's announcement was delayed for a few moments, reportedly because of a power failure at the studio.)
As it turned out, Ohio offered television the final piece of the puzzle, as had been predicted for weeks. Nevertheless, with a presidential election on the line and -- perhaps more to the point -- network television reputations too, none of the key TV venues was eager to call the election for either Obama or challenger Mitt Romney by late evening.
"Tonight, the next president of the United States [and] you're looking at him," said "CBS Evening News" anchor Scott Pelley, referring to a split-screen shot of both candidates at the top of yesterday's program. That balancing act characterized all network coverage, from left-leaning MSNBC to right-leaning Fox News.
There were sound reasons for caution. Television was burned in the 2000 election, when Florida demolished punditry and network projections. Moreover, key swing states -- notably Virginia, Ohio and Florida, representing 60 electoral votes -- were too close to call last night by 10 p.m. As NBC News' chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd said, "The thing I'm watching all night is how Mitt Romney is doing in northern Virginia," adding, "We're going to be a little extra cautious."
Indeed, Virginia at least briefly almost seemed to supplant Ohio -- a network fixation for weeks now. But that changed by 10 p.m. when almost any swing state assumed major significance. ABC declared it was ready to call "the first big battleground state," Diane Sawyer said. That state? New Hampshire, for Obama.
And as expected, different networks offered different styles. With crowds gathering in Times Square, which was ABC's backdrop all night, that network's approach was almost jaunty, even party-like. NBC -- anchored by Williams, who frequently referred to Sandy victims in the metropolitan area -- renamed Rockefeller Plaza "Democracy Plaza" for the occasion. CNN lit up the Empire State Building in blue or red, depending on which candidate won the White House -- which, as one observer on Twitter drolly noted, was "a real breakthrough for those who get their news from buildings."