This is a story about how CBS Television News transformed the reality of New Hampshire's 1980 presidential primary into images -- electronic images which take on a reality of their own in modern American politics.
It is a story of enormous physical effort, of lavish spending of money, of electronic wizardry and of basic human confrontation. One basic confrontation came at 11:50 and 30 seconds last night, when Ronald Reagan was already two minutes over the time allotted for his live interview with Walter Cronkite. Cronkite cut him off. Live television knows no manners.
Cronkite probably realized that he had to cut off Reagan because Mark Harrington told him so. Harrington is a key player on nights like this. He sits out off sight in a little cavity in the elaborate election-night set just beside and just under Cronkite. Like the prompter in that little box at the front of an opera stage, Harrington tells Cronkite what is happening.Harrington is Cronkite's reality; Cronkite is ours.
The objective, according to one CBS executive right after another, is to bring "accurate information" about the primaries to television viewers as quickly and appealingly as possible.When they say information, they mean results -- who wins, by how much. Explanation is also information, but explanation has a different status in television, which is a world of first things first. The first thing is, who won?
CBS has a big job. At 6:30 p.m. most of the CBS Evening News will be broadcast from the election-night set that seven CBS carpenters from New York have assembled in the conference center of the Sheraton-Wayfarer Motel. At 7 there will be a "second feed" of the Evening News, this one with hard election results, since the polls close at 7.
Sometime near 8 CBS plans to interrupt regular programming with a bulletin calling the result of at least the Democratic primary. At 9, 9:30 or 10 there can be added feeds to the West Coast for the updated version of the Evening News that will be broadcast there. Sometime during prime time a second "interrupt" is planned to give further results.
Just after 11 there will be a feed that local stations can use in their 11 o'clock news.Then at 11:30 comes the evening's major production, a half-hour special intended to tell the whole story.
CBS set up shop in New Hampshire on Feb. 4. This long evening will be the climax of three weeks' endeavor. CBS executives will admit that the company has spent at least $150,000 for those three weeks -- the true figure is secret and surely higher.
The Russians and their five-year plans have nothing on CBS News. CBS has been planning this night for four years. Executives from CBS were in the Sheraton-Wayfarer's manager's office four years ago when NBC decided not to renew its option on the space in the motel that is suitable for this kind of broadcasting. CBS took the space on the spot -- for 1980 and for 1984.
"Whenever we leave New York," explains David Buksbaum, a senior producer responsible for the logistics of this road show, "we hang on by our fingernails." It is 4 o'clock, 2 1/2 hours to go to air time. "I mean" -- he does not want to convey the impression that he is gloating, but he is -- "NBC's power blew up this morning . . . We have to plan it all out long-term." (A transformer at the NBC installation in Manchester burned out this morning but was repaired before air time.)
Buksbaum's assistant, Dick Sedia, is a CBS secret weapon. He is an engineer who knows how to plan telephone networks. "Sedia handed our plan to the phone company months ago," Buksbaum boasts.
CBS in New Hampshire has hundreds of phones lines -- to and from New York, to and from its remote camera locations around the state, to and from its own facilities and offices here. And miles of electric cables. And microwave connections to bring TV images from candidates' headquarters on election night. And connections to the election unit's computers that will allow people here to make the projections and analyses that are now a key ingredient of election-night broadcasting.
Artie Bloom, director of this extravaganza, is the man who must get all the parts to function together on the air. Bloom is from Central Casting, via New York University and a stint in the CBS mailroom where he began his career. Bloom runs the show from the trailer parked outside, the trailer that is usually used for football games.
Artie Bloom chain-smokes. As air time approaches, he paces around the tiny workspace in the trailer, gaping up at the 28 TV screens in front of him, snapping instructions through his headset to cameramen, correspondents, producers -- sometimes even to Walter Cronkite.He freely admits it -- he gets excited:
"By the time you're on the air you are really flying. It's very important to be keyed up to do a show like this. You can't relax. If the director relaxes, people around him relax too much. The group of people we have here work best under pressure -- most of the people in this business do."
Bloom is 37, but looks older; Most of the people here look like they've been living under pressure. When asked, they all say it's fun.
Russ Bensley is the executive producer, which makes him virtually the boss. Ernest Leiser, a vice president of CBS News in charge of political coverage, is also here to supervise.William Leonard, president of CBS News, is here to watch. Bensley writes the "lineup," or basic script for the 30-minute special at 11:30, long in advance. "I know now what will be on the show," he admits eight hours before the polls have closed.
Bensley has decided to start out with the usual Cronkite "tease" -- the television equivalent of a reporter's lead, or first paragraph, a comeon. Then there will be a quick rundown of results, reactions from the Republican candidates, a commercial, reactions from the Democrats, more commercials, two minutes of analysis of the findings of a CBS-New York Times poll on why people voted as they did, a "prepackaged" piece about how the candidates ran in New Hampshire, reports from Minnesota and Massachusetts, a Cronkite wrap-up, and final commercials.
How will Bensley measure the success or failure of his program? It's partly a mechanical question, he replies -- the pieces must fit together. And he adds, "An awful lot of our success or failure tonight depends on how well Warren does."
He is talking about Warren Mitofsky, director of Polling and Election Analysis for CBS.Mitofsky makes the "calls" -- he decides when to say there's a winner, or to say what the final margin of victory will be. "It's terrific!" says Ernest Leiser. "His reputation is on the line!"
Already, at about 5 in the afternoon, using data from his poll of voters as they leave the voting booth, Mitofsky has a feeling that this primary will be a surprise. He senses that Reagan is doing very well. "If I were George Bush," he says late in the afternoon, "I wouldn't put too much champagne on ice."
Mitofsky's operation is another vast CBS undertaking. He has people in 25 precincts, each conducting 120 to 140 interviews for his poll. He has dozens more stationed in the precincts he is sampling to try to get an early projection of the final outcome. All these people phone in their findings to New York, where a crew of 75 tabulates and analyzes them.
The fact that all his bosses seem to enjoy passing responsibility on to him appears not to upset Mitofsky. "I sort of look forward to it," he says. I'm not apprehensive about it." Mitofsky really looks like he's not apprehensive about it. Just two hours before he must start making his "calls," he describes the procedure in calm, even scholarly, tones.
By about 5:30 p.m. an outsider can sense a sharply rising energy level among the 100-odd CBS employes milling around the set and nearby work areas."Oh yes," one acknowledges, "we're getting up for it."
By 6:30 -- the first broadcast of the Evening News -- Mitofsky will allow Cronkite to say (30 minutes before the polls close) that it is "a close race" between President Carter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and that Reagan has a "comfortable lead" over Bush. At 7, Cronkite goes a little further, saying, "Carter is ahead of Kennedy in a close race."
Mitofsky isn't ready to go further until 8:15, when CBS breaks into its regular program so Cronkite can predict that Carter will defeat Kennedy and Reagan will roll up "an overwhelming win" over Bush.
At 9 p.m. Mitofsky if prepared to make precise projections of the final vote, and Cronkite broadcasts these for the West Coast edition of the Evening News. His figures are good: He calls the Kennedy and Carter percentages within one point of the final outcome, gets Reagan's 51 percent just about right, and misses Bush's final share by a single point. At 9:09, CBS gives these figures to eastern viewers by interrupting a movie. Cronkite makes of goof, though, referring to the governor of California as "John Brown."
During the evening the candidates cooperatively appear at their headquarters at intervals of about 15 minutes of concede, claim victory, whatever. Even President Carter stops in front of a CBS camera on his way back to the White House from a night of theater at the Kennedy Center. (CBS has five to seven employes at each of its remote camera locations to record these pronouncements). The candidates' statements are edited into brief snippets for use on the 11:30 special, which is ready to roll in good time.
But at 11:29, Mark Harrington reports later, there is an exhilarating moment of panic. "All the numbers disappeared," he says -- the computer terminals momentarily went blank. Just before air time they were restored.
The show goes relatively smoothly. Some of the candidates are in good form, which makes it more entertaining. In an exclusive CBS interview, Bush is asked bluntly why he did so badly. "I just don't know," the candidate replies convincingly. "I can't figure it."
Bob Dole, whose long weeks of campaigning in New Hampshire earned him just 608 votes, provides a neat "kicker" to a series of taped comments from the Republicans: "I'm not a factor at this point," Dole acknowledges in a rare flash of political candor.
The only improvisation in the program is the live interview with Reagan, who has earned the appearance. But Reagan goes on too long, forcing improvised changes in the rest of the schedule. A planned analytical conversation between Cronkite and Bruce Morton -- supposed to last two minutes near the end -- is killed to make up time.
The only mistakes of the evening involve technical problems in New York, a relief to the crew here. Several times, visual displays of results fail to appear on the screen as scheduled, but only a professional viewer would have noticed.
It is said that the media influence today's politics, boosting or destroying candidacies by the way they analyze specific events. In New Hampshire last night, however, CBS never suggested that the ultimate fate of any candidacy had been settled or even significantly altered in this primary. There was precious little interpretation of any kind.
Another curious fact: The programming that was channeled electronically through that trailer usually used at football games included no discussion at all of the issues of 1980. CBS broadcast the political equivalent of sports results from New Hampshire last night, complete with an interesting series of locker room interviews.