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With the 2012 campaign marking the first presidential election where the majority of Americans own smartphones and are active on social media, network coverage has moved a long way past the big question of how much they should be doing for online, mobile and social media. It's now a given that any viewer who wishes to will have unprecedented access to coverage on multiple devices, with all the major broadcast networks streaming their primetime coverage to multiple platforms.
But the crucial issue that remains "too close to call" at present is how well these massive investments in digital media will improve overall election coverage, at least according to many of the network executives interviewed by B&C.
If successful, that would provide a welcome change from the past, where at least some online, mobile and social media efforts looked like technical experiments that added little to the viewing experience.
"Our goal is to make sure that we are including social media in a way that is truly additive," said David Beck, VP and general manager of social media for Univision Communications. "Univision has made a huge commitment to social and digital. But we are not going to be doing social for the sake of social or digital for the sake of digital."
Vivian Schiller, senior VP and chief digital officer of NBC News, also stresses the importance of taking a more mature approach to each platform that goes far beyond simply boasting about the availability of content on multiple devices.
"NBC and all of our competitors want to be where the audience is,"Â Schiller said. "Everyone is pursuing a multiplatform approach. But what we believe will set us apart is how we are looking at each platform. We want to focus on what is unique about it and why users are attracted to that particular delivery method so we can serve that need."Â
One sign of the maturity of these digital efforts is the amount of content the networks have made available on multiple devices, with extensive streaming efforts and mobile playing a much larger role than they did in 2008.
"It's been said that [2012 is] the first social election, but we see it as the first mobile election,"Â noted Doug Vance, VP of product strategy at ABC News. "We've put a big emphasis on making our content accessible to people on the go."
Another bellwether of the network's embrace of digital media can be found in the widespread alliances it has cut with major online and social media partners, added Joe Ruffolo, senior VP, ABC News Digital.
While networks had in the past been reluctant to make a lot of their content available on outside platforms, due to concerns about the impact of moving their audiences away from their own sites, this year they cut extensive alliances with YouTube's Election Hub, Yahoo, Facebook, Xbox Live and Hulu that will be streaming live coverage from broadcast networks.
Many of the networks will also be offering major improvements to their websites and mobile apps. ABC, for example, has been adapting its interactive maps to mobile screens and is deploying technologies that will allow the network to deliver election news and results based on a user's location.
Many of these efforts are designed to better integrate networks' on-air efforts with their social and digital efforts (See "Setting a New Political Stage").
PBS NewsHour, for example, has built around 900 maps for its online Digital Map Center that includes a wide variety of demographic data to be used in its Election Night coverage. "We wanted to provide our online audience with the same set of information that our reporters will have,"Â notes Christina Bellantoni, political editor of the PBS NewsHour.
Meredith Artley, VP and managing editor of CNN.com, added that these cross-platform efforts can freshen up network reporting and help avoid the dilemma that "political journalism in election year can become a little formulaic."Â
For CNN, that has translated into significant improvements in its online, mobile, social and on-air coverage, all of which will be pulled together on Election Night.
"Election Night is our Super Bowl,"Â said NBC's Schiller. "It is when we pull out all the toys and all the stops to create the best experience possible."Â
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