Media mania: A midterm election that looks a lot like a presidential election on TV

The national media is treating the 2018 midterm election like it's a presidential election, with TV and digital coverage to match.

Posted Updated

Brian Stelter
, CNN Business
(CNN) — The national media is treating the 2018 midterm election like it's a presidential election, with TV and digital coverage to match.

And there are good reasons why. Voter interest is sky-high. The early vote is explosive. And President Trump's campaign trail rhetoric is apocalyptic.

"In my 25 years of election coverage at CNN, we have never seen interest in a midterm election in the way we are seeing it this year," CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist said.

"We see that interest in elevated television ratings when we cover political stories; we see it in our web traffic; and of course we see record early voting," Feist said. "It's certainly looking like this is a Midterm for the record books."

Reporters -- and Trump's allies -- have been framing the election as a referendum on the Trump presidency. So here's what major news outlets have in store.

Networks add extra hours of coverage

On cable, the nonstop live coverage has already been happening for hours. Every CNN newscast is live from the network's DC bureau. The special election night broadcast begins at 5 p.m. ET, one hour before the first polls close in Kentucky.

Fox News and MSNBC's specials start at 6 p.m. ET. Those broadcasts will be based in New York.

Fox built a temporary studio and interactive space outside its midtown headquarters for the midterms. And NBC has brought back "Democracy Plaza," its patriotic name for Rockefeller Plaza at election time. Results will be displayed on top of the famed skating rink.

The cable news channels will be live all night and through the next day. But they'll be competing for viewers against NBC, ABC and CBS to a much greater degree than in past midterm years.

In 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014, those three broadcast networks usually scheduled one hour of prime time coverage. There were short cut-ins earlier in the evening, and live streams on the web, but that was it -- an hour of prime time.

This year is different. NBC, ABC and CBS will all be live from 8 p.m. until 11 p.m. The New York-based anchors will continue into the wee hours for the west coast. Coverage could continue even after 2 a.m. ET.

On CBS, there's a twist: Stephen Colbert is hosting a live edition of "The Late Show" at 11:35 p.m. ET to react to whatever happens in the election.

ABC News has a brand new set at its New York headquarters in the Upper West Side -- a shift from past election nights in Times Square. Anchors will use augmented reality technology to display balance of power updates.

NBC and CBS have transformed their morning show studios into election-themed sets.

Keeping track of hundreds of races is an exciting challenge for networks and major newspapers. Most major networks now have a version of the "Magic Wall"-- a touchscreen board pioneered by CNN a decade ago.

"Telling the story of the House is always a challenge because we have to keep track of 435 separate races - most of which do not have household names," Feist said. So "we have completely reprogrammed the magic wall in order to help keep track of the house. We have given John King a new set of tools to track each competitive house race."

Local newscasts and websites will drill down in even more detail. In Texas, where the Senate race has been hotly contested, the nonprofit news outlet The Texas Tribune has partnered with a local TV station to produce a live stream for election night.

Partisan media united on get-out-the-vote efforts

Since 2016, there's been a rise in point-of-view media outlets on the left -- partly in an attempt to match the conservative media universe on the right.

New outlets like Crooked Media, the progressive media company created by former Obama aides, have been prioritizing get out the vote efforts. Crooked produced a website spin-off of its "Pod Save America" podcast called "Vote Save America," full of information about why and how to vote.

On the right, radio hosts and pro-Trump Twitter celebrities have been imploring their audiences to vote, too.

Rush Limbaugh made his case on his radio show on Monday afternoon and then repeated it at Trump's Monday evening rally.

Fox's Sean Hannity broadcast live from the rally in what was essentially a GOP infomercial. Then he stepped up on stage with Trump, despite his earlier claim that he wasn't there to campaign for the president.

Hannity's colleague Jeanine Pirro also appeared on stage. She told viewers, "If you want to see Maxine Waters, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi for the next two years, in your face, don't go out and vote."

Partisan outlets on both sides are promising many hours of live-streamed coverage.

The digital network "The Young Turks," which championed the candidacy of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez ahead of her surprise primary victory earlier this year, has a 1 p.m. start time on Tuesday.

And The Gateway Pundit is promoting "election night coverage" hosted by Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon.

But if history is any guide, most voters will tune in to major networks -- remote in one hand, cell phone in the other, refreshing for results until the late hours.

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