While standing directly in the center of Fox News’ brand-new, two-story election night studio, I became a bit overwhelmed. Under my feet, thousands of LED lights had transformed the floor into a gently rotating royal blue presidential seal. To my left, a 20-something-foot vertical screen displayed every state and its polls closing times. To my right, a 31-foot-long LED wall showed an oscillating, urgent electoral “ALERT” before a new graphic flashed into its place, projecting a shiny gold 6-foot-tall map of Indiana. Just above my peripheral vision, a red news ticker rimming the 2,200 square feet of exterior windows cycled through logos and breaking news. And just above that, the coup de grace: a 528-square-foot, circular “video chandelier” that beamed the words “AMERICA’S ELECTION NIGHT HEADQUARTERS” in action-movie opening credits lettering, against alternating red, white, and blue backgrounds. Test tweets flashed. Electoral projection animations whizzed. Touchscreens were touched. It all felt like standing inside some kind of uncanny, aggressively patriotic space station.
Tonight at 6 p.m., Fox News will likely welcome more than 10 million viewers into that space station, which the network is unveiling for the broadcast it calls “our Super Bowl.” Embattled after a summer in which founding chairman and CEO Roger Ailes was forced out over sexual harassment allegations, Fox News is using its election night broadcast and new, reportedly $30 million studio to make a statement. Namely, that it is still a monolithic, indestructible media powerhouse, capable of outpixeling and outspending rivals new and old. The message: We are titanic and we are invulnerable.
“It’s a bit of sensory overload, right?” Alan Komissaroff, senior executive producer for Fox’s election night broadcast, said of the set — which, just a few years ago, was a Charles Schwab branch. “There’s so much information to bring in — House races, Senate races, exit polls — throughout the night but you have to present it differently, otherwise it gets boring and now we have dozens of ways to do that.” When I asked Komissaroff if all the extremely pricey bells and whistles and pixels were essential to the election team’s success this evening, he laughed. “Is it necessary?” he said, gesturing upward to the looming video chandelier, which had begun to whir in preparation to lower to the ground. “Well, it looks really good.”
And while the video chandelier is likely to be the object of a few laughs on Twitter, it does look pretty good. More importantly, it represents an investment few (if any) media outlets could pull off. Fox News is a titanic force, thanks in part to Donald Trump and an unprecedented election cycle; the network recently reported record revenues: an estimated $2.62 billion in 2016. The past year may have been tough for Fox spiritually, but at least the ratings have been great, starting in 2015 when its first GOP debate pulled in 24 million viewers.
Fox is no stranger to big ratings — it led cable news during 2012’s election night broadcasts with 11 million viewers. But the network has more to prove this cycle. Among the concerns: 1) Megyn Kelly, an election night anchor and arguably the network’s biggest star, whose contract is due up next year and is reportedly seeking north of $20 million per year; 2) the slow recovery from the fallout of the Ailes ouster, which has cast a shadow of uncertainty as to the network’s direction in the coming years; 3) the fact that its audience is growing perilously older by the year —with a median viewer age of 67 in 2015 (though it does occupy the top spot in three of the top five cable news programs in the 18–49 demographic); and 4) an increasingly sinister brand of media criticism and distrust from Trump supporters, from which Fox News is not exempt. (Two weeks ago, Trump surrogate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich railed against Kelly for displaying bias against the Republican candidate.)
It was amid that chaos that rumors began to surface of the prospect of Trump extending his brand into video news. And despite the candidate’s insistence that he has no plans, those rumors have continually inched closer to reality. Three weeks ago, the Financial Times reported that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was in the early phases of shopping a Trump TV network. Just a day later, Trump’s official Facebook page hosted a pre- and post-debate livestream event, complete with graphics and chyrons — perhaps Trump TV’s inaugural broadcast. It was viewed 9 million times. Since then, Trump TV has spent the last two weeks conducting nightly news broadcasts over Facebook Live from Trump Tower with advisers and campaign staffers. The campaign has even set aside a camera spot for “Trump TV” at the candidate’s election night party headquarters.
Despite the myriad challenges facing a potential Trump TV venture (including Trump’s own interest level and the discipline to fund and follow through on it, and the fact that it would likely have to be a streaming subscription service — a business model that’s notoriously tough to crack), the rumors and the attendant buzz around a new offering suggest a desire in a certain branch of the right for a different flavor of cable news. One more like Breitbart (previously run by Trump’s campaign CEO Steve Bannon), which more closely mirrors Trump’s brash, alt-right oriented movement.
Fox’s election night broadcast marks an important 20-year anniversary. Yet it’s also a moment for the network to flex its muscle against both its traditional rivals — like CNN and MSNBC — and a crop of new online programming debuting from the likes of MTV, Vice, and others (including BuzzFeed News, which will broadcast an election night show live on Twitter). As such, the video chandelier and surplus of gorgeous HD touch screens are a not-so-subtle gesture toward Fox's war chest and elite subscription fee revenues and soaring advertising rates — 30-second ad spots for Fox News' second primary debate sold for as much as $260,000 last year.
And while the LED lights and banners make for a great backdrop, they also represent a crucial tension that will play out on media's biggest stages for the next few years as incumbent networks try to spend new media into oblivion while their audiences skew increasingly older. In many ways, Fox reflects the challenge facing all the incumbent cable networks: Is money enough to fend off rising digital challengers?
“I think you’d be naive not to see the future of the media as moving onto all kinds of platforms," Martha MacCallum, a co-host of Fox's America's Newsroom, said. "I think competition is healthy but people tune in to us is because they feel a connection and they trust us to give the facts to them straight." MacCallum, who will lead the network’s on-air exit polls analysis, stressed that while there may be increased frustrations with the media, Fox News' reporters, researchers, and decision desk provide the necessary perspective to cut through its viewers’ online filter bubbles and echo chambers.
When asked about any worry of an insurgent Trump TV, MacCallum was quick to dismiss it as partisan noise. “I’m no more concerned with the idea than, say, a Newsmax or Breitbart, which are already out there and fit into that filter bubble category,” she said.
MacCallum’s co-host and election night companion Bill Hemmer echoed the point. “I think with the technology available today there are more outlets able to experiment, but it’s not very easy to do what we do," he explained from his election night perch on the second floor of the new studio. "There's a lot of nuance to it. I read all the trades and I see what people trying to do and what they’re saying [with regard to Trump TV] — but I think the point to be made is that it’s a lot more difficult than it looks.”
With 30 hours and 10,000 things to test before air, that difficulty was on display behind the scenes. As Hemmer spoke, a half dozen contractors drilled and hammered finishing pieces into place, while the crew adjusted and tweaked settings on the set’s 14 cameras. Frantic producers cycled in and out, constantly prodding the 34 touch screens to zoom in on precincts and counties and trigger any number of flashy animations. Lights oscillated, cycling through color sequences, and at one point a test tweet as big as my body popped up on the video chandelier. It all felt incredibly complex, dizzying, and expensive. And while it will most likely draw tens of millions more eyes than Trump’s public access-style live show or many of the stripped-down online broadcasts, it’s unclear how much the $30 million competitive advantage really means to anxious viewers at home trying to watch the returns.
As Hemmer sees it, the evening’s production value will send a clear message to viewers. “One of the best ways to display the gravity of the night is to demonstrate the power of TV, which, despite all the advances of technology, is still a number one source. It’s the reason why you have tens of millions watching tomorrow.”
From the control room — in between finding the perfect moments to raise and lower and show America his video chandelier — Komissaroff may keep an eye on what the smaller players are up to, but he’s not concerned. As a news producer, Facebook Live and any number of other nascent broadcasts are new resources for him to utilize, made all the more important to the news-gathering process by the fact that presidential candidates are using them.
As for his thoughts on Trump’s little broadcast experiments? “I honestly haven’t even thought about it, but I’m not worried about it. It’s not the same thing. We’re a news organization,” he said. “Plus, I think our graphics look better.”