John King, Architect? CNNs ‘Magic Wall’ Might Build New Views

When CNN’s famous “Magic Wall” comes out for an election newscast, it’s all hands on deck. No one knows that better than John King.

The longtime CNN correspondent grew up left-handed, he explains during a recent meeting in the network’s Washington bureau, but the demands of CNN’s popular interactive map are so great that he has trained himself to be ambidextrous so he can work the screen with either hand. Each flick of a finger or wrist by King, who Is likely to work at least 14 hours Tuesday night during coverage of the 2022 midterm elections, can show viewers the latest results across the United States or in any specific county in any particular state.  “I trained myself to do the Magic Wall right-handed, so when I do need a second hand, it’s my good hand,” says King while holding forth in front of two different Magic Wall displays.

That’s no easy task, but King, who has been working the Wall on CNN since Larry King was an on-air staple, had a childhood boost. When he was young, his father gave him a left-handed mitt so he could play baseball, but warned his son the family didn’t have money to replace the glove. “If you lose it, you’re done,” King says he was told. “I lost it.”  He was forced to use his brother’s right-handed counterpart to play games.

The anchor will need that training. King is preparing for a wild Tuesday, one that will likely see tallies shift as different states follow bespoke laws about tabulating mail-in votes. In some cases, he may have to wave his hands over a state where one political party wins the gubernatorial race in one state, but another wins the campaign for a Senate seat. “Having both hands reasonably accessible helps,” says King.

Mastering these nuances is critical for King and the network he has called home since 1997. It’s no secret that CNN has seen its overall ratings fall in recent months. In the third quarter, the network’s average total-day audience among viewers between 25 and 54 — the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programming — was off 17%, according to Nielsen, compared with a dip of 11% for MSNBC and one of 13% for Fox News Channel, which is the most-viewed network in the sector, even on Election Night. CNN’s new corporate parent, Warner Bros. Discovery, hopes to strike new connections with viewers by presenting a less intense version of the news, made more colorful, passionate, and even opinionated during the Trump administration under the network’s previous chief, Jeff Zucker.

The midterm elections are a natural starting point for such an endeavor. Cable-news viewership typically ebbs after a presidential race, and the networks see the midterms as a natural starting point to build back audience as the race for the White House starts to take shape. Midterm results will place into sharp relief how the White House, Democrats and Republicans are likely to fare over the next two years and lay bare the terrain presidential candidates will have to navigate.

King is the one working the early map. In the space of less than 15 minutes, he takes a visitor to California, Rhode Island and New Hampshire — virtually, of course — to explain voter dynamics in each state. The cameras aren’t on, but King has already started the show he puts on every few years, gaining new traction in social media and sparking a reminder that similar antics can now be seen at most of the nation’s TV-news outlets.

Waving your hands and fingers around is no longer enough — no matter how nimble King is on live TV. Thanks to a rise in partisan media and disinformation pushed via digital and social outlets, viewers of different parties have differing levels of trust in the news they watch. About 77% of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic say they have at least some trust in the information they get from national news outlets, according to data collected earlier this year by Pew Research Center, but only 42% of Republicans and Republican leaners say the same.

That rift may only expand. The rise of absentee voting means that the red and blue swaths viewers see on King’s map early in the day are likely to change during the night. “In previous cycles prior to 2020, that was not as central a piece of the coverage, and it has become more so,” says David Chalian, a vice president and political director at CNN whose face is on camera frequently during election sessions. “That requires us to explain to our audience in real time what they are seeing — fractured results. And we have to say what we know about what is not yet counted and how that may impact the results.”

For King, that means keeping in mind the conversation he’s having with CNN’s viewers. Sometimes, in order to get the information he needs more quickly, he has to turn his back to the audience while he’s talking.   ”I can be a lot smarter” if he can access the data fast, he says. “I view it as a conversation, and if I turn my back on you in a conversation, I say, ‘Excuse me for a second.’ That’s what I’d do if I were in your living room or the kitchen, or wherever you are watching.”

He also tries to make the Wall about something other than right-versus-left. “People don’t like politics,” he says.  “People do like to travel. They like to learn about new things.” So he tries to treat the experience as a sort of trip to new frontiers. “The viewer engages because you’re visiting their community, or you’re taking them on a trip somewhere they have never been. Where is that? Who lives there? What’s that place like?” He says he’s simply doing what he has always done over a career in which he was once the national political correspondent for the Associated Press. “Here’s John on the road again — boom, boom, boom.”

CNN found its Magic Wall technology when a former Washington bureau chief, David Bohrman, visited a military-intelligence trade show and found it on display, developed by a company called Perceptive Pixel. The system would allow Pentagon analysts to utilize a touch-sensitive screen to map out their work in real time.

Behind the much-scrutinized monitors is a phalanx of producers eager to make updates that help King make the information more clear to viewers. “We are all former show producers who happen to geek out on technology,” says Pallavi Reddy, a senior director of new media at CNN. “Most of us don’t have computer science degrees. Our secret sauce is understanding the story value.”

In the not too distant future, CNN may be able to develop an augmented-reality counterpart to the Magic Wall. Could you imagine King pushing a virtual 3-D on-screen hologram of Colorado so that it spins around, letting viewers see how much of the state has voted Republican, Democrat or other? There’s also more the cable-news outlets could do with so-called “second screen” models, says Reddy, that make use of consumers’ mobile devices.

But the Wall is what people understand right now, says King, and moving to new technology too quickly may just serve to alienate viewers. “I hope and believe that people trust me when I’m doing this,” says King. “If you are going to change things, bring them with you.” Even in such a charged era, with viewers more polarized and distrustful, CNN hopes he can.

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