(Courtesy CNN)

Not exhilarating television, but look at the alternatives: Sit on the set and talk. All night long, CNN was pulling this little trick — shifting between its shiny set and reporters in county elections offices.

Brian Todd was in Nashua, standing in front of hard-working county government officials doing hand counts. Poppy Harlow chimed in from Des Moines, signaling that the vote-counting bureaucracy was still churning. Paul Vercammen in Boulder read vote tallies from a handwritten note he’d scribbled. Don Lemon was in Cincinnati, reporting on how many trucks had come in and out of the county office facility (25).

The message from cable’s veteran news organization: We’re all about the counties, the building blocks of a successful presidential campaign. It’s a message, too, that the star of cable election-night coverage, CNN’s John King, helped to deliver.

On Tuesday night, King was political America’s very own county commissioner at large. He breezed from counties in Florida to counties in Ohio to counties in Virginia, each time contextualizing precisely what was going on in the race. His presentation was relentless in comparing President Obama’s performance in the critical counties to his tallies from the 2008 campaign, a marker for viewers to judge whether the president was on track to win another term.

It was in Florida where King crushed it. All night long, the preliminary vote counts were showing Obama to be highly competitive in the Sunshine State. But as the percentage of the vote return ticked upward, viewers were left wondering whether the outstanding votes would swing to Mitt Romney’s favor.

Into this ambiguity King landed with authority. “Ninety percent of the vote in Florida is in. When you look at the map, can you find the Republican votes to bring this state back for Mitt Romney?” King asked. “So we’re looking and looking.” He highlighted Broward and Miami-Dade counties on his interactive map, noting that Obama still had some votes yet to be counted there. He bounced through other counts where the president still had some more daylight. “If you’re in the Romney war room and you’re looking at this, you’re getting a little nervous,” said King.

Not long before CNN called the race for Obama, King said that Romney’s getting to 270 electoral college votes “is almost impossible and completely improbable.”

King had a capable helper Tuesday night in the form of a new HD studio that CNN debuted in September. I visited the high-tech political-data clearinghouse upon its christening and listened as CNN executives raved about the place’s “magic walls” and insane number of monitors — 109 vs. a lousy 12 at the old studio — that would facilitate the finest breakdowns in election numbers. Construction of the facility took 504 days, according to CNN.

Days well spent. Information from the set was finely presented, relevant and not intolerably techie. In one memorable moment, Vercammen read out vote tallies from Colorado, and King turned around and scribbled them by hand onto his monitor (see photo above).

The CNN performance was a triumph of reporting over the sort of partisan rubbish that was available just a few clicks away on MSNBC. Even though this was election night, even though there was all manner of compelling data points to be discussed, even though electoral contests cry out for a toning down of ideology, it felt like just any other tendentious evening on the “Lean Forward” channel.

MSNBC’s Al Sharpton on Republican attitudes toward certain voters: “You can’t demonize them, you can’t marginalize them and and say why don’t you vote for me.” MSNBC’s Ed Schultz on Elizabeth Warren’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race: “I’m going to speak for the liberals in this country, if I may.” What a change of pace!

Fox News committed a couple of its common errors, including an interview with Sarah Palin, who spoke of how a campaign must “leave it all out there on the ice and do your very best.” Such pablum served only to downgrade the fine work of anchors Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly, who steered a professional and lively broadcast. The production went from very good to great when analyst Karl Rove started popping off about an allegedly premature Ohio call, prompting an entertaining bit of ad-libbing by Kelly and Baier.

Now get back to Benghazi, Fox!