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History Channels: Television brings home the sights and sounds of Obama's (and America's) night of nights

Barack Obama stands triumphant in Chicago's Grant Park. CBS Photos

It's not just a hollow campaign promise. On increasingly rare occasions, television can still be a uniter not a divider, rising to the occasion of a signature event that can only happen on this scale in the land of the free, home of the brave.

Barack Obama's election to the presidency -- and John McCain's classy and conciliatory concession speech -- were quintessentially made in America.

"I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences," McCain said of Obama in his final act as a presidential candidate.

"I may not have won your vote tonight. But I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too," Obama said of McCain's supporters during his first act as president-elect.

Both candidates spoke at climactic, latenight outdoor rallies, McCain on the grounds of the Arizona Biltmore hotel in Phoenix and Obama in Chicago's Grant Park, where anti-war protesters gathered during the fractious 1968 Democratic National Convention to chant, "The Whole World Is Watching"

The whole world -- now almost infinitely more populous and diverse -- watched on Tuesday night as well. And America's major television networks brought the globe quite a show.

Their in-studio news sets were almost uniformly splashy, complete with computer-generated "virtual" adornments that created falsely vast, yet realistic-looking arenas from which various correspondents spewed statistics and commentary. CNN even beamed in a holographic Spike Lee among others. And it was all in sparkling high-definition, making past election night presentations seem almost quaint and grainy.

But the words and pictures from the candidates' closing venues were all that mattered in the end.

No one could see everything while bouncing through ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN and HDNET, where Dan Rather presided from a spare, unadorned desk on what might very well be his last televised election night. But I certainly saw enough. Here's a chronological, anecdotal look at how we got to those climactic endings:

(Note: In prime-time, I mostly watched the Fox network's broadcast feed (on Fox4 locally), anchored by Shepard Smith. The Fox News Channel coverage was helmed by Brit Hume, who's retiring in January. Both networks made their electoral vote projections simultaneously. I also mostly watched NBC's broadcast coverage, anchored by Brian Williams, instead of MSNBC's (David Gregory at the throttle). Again, both networks made their projections at the same times.)

6 P.M -- In preliminary festivities before the polls begin closing in earnest, all networks immediately project McCain the winner in Kentucky and give Vermont to Obama. That gives McCain an 8 to 3 electoral vote lead, which is padded to 16-3 when he's awarded South Carolina before we get down to serious business at 7 p.m.

CNN's projections are heralded by irksome introductory music that makes it seem as though anchor Wolf Blitzer is preparing viewers for a verifiable sighting of Elvis or at least the second coming of Christ. Blitzer's super-serious vocal intonations do nothing to downplay matters. It gets old in a very big hurry.

Meanwhile on Fox, reporter Brett Baier is in the "Balance of Power Studio," where he files his first reports on early projections in Senate and House races. Yes, they actually call it that.

7 P.M -- McCain's lead instantly vanishes for good when polls close in mostly Obama country. In a finger-snap, courtesy of big electoral vote counts in populous states such as Illinois, New Jersey and Massachusetts, Obama has the following electoral vote advantages:

77-39 on Fox
77-34 on CNN
81-39 on CBS
102-34 on ABC
103-34 on NBC

HDNET, relying on AP's consistently more cautious projections, has it 69-34 for Obama

ABC and NBC are the first networks to give Obama the pivotal state of Pennsylvania and its 21 electoral votes. The McCain camp quickly protests, but by 7:39 p.m. CBS, Fox and finally, CNN, also have made the call on Pennsylvania.

7:46 p.m. The AP is still the last holdout on Pennsylvania. HDNET's Rather is fully aware of this, telling viewers, "We're not at the point where we're totally confident" that the state is going for Obama.

7:49 p.m. -- CBS anchor Katie Couric quotes an unnamed Republican strategist as saying, "At this point we need a miracle." Veteran analyst Bob Schieffer agrees.

At this point it's noticed that Fox4, still the last major local D-FW station not in high-definition, is unable to retain the Fox network's HD presentation whenever it inserts various local vote totals at the bottom of home screens. Instead the network presentation suddenly shrinks to the square-boxed, now almost archaic, and comparatively blurry "analog" format.

This is irksome to say the least, and no doubt a turnoff to the increasing numbers of D-FW viewers who are watching election returns on high-definition TV sets. It's an open invitation to click elsewhere.

8 P.M -- Polls close in Texas, which usually is an automatic projection of the Lone Star state into the Republican column. But what's this? CBS is alone in giving Texas to Bush. All rival networks officially consider it still too close to call.

8:19 P.M -- Fox is the first network to award Ohio to Obama, all but dooming McCain's chances to prevail. All other networks remain on the fence -- for the next several minutes at least. So this is a bold call by a network that for the most part has been championing McCain's candidacy while MSNBC played for the Obama team.

8:40 P.M -- CNN, by far the most balanced network in the all-news cable universe, finds no believable way for McCain to win.

"I don't mean to be mean, but this is very bleak at this time," electoral map maestro John King tells colleague Campbell Brown.

He then begins giving various states to McCain based on absolute best-case scenarios.

"I can get him to 259 (short of the 270 required electoral votes)," King says after using his built-in electoral map pointer -- namely his right index finger. New Mexico, one of the states he gives to McCain, already has been projected for Obama by some rival networks. That's how grim it is for him.

Meanwhile, ABC projects Texas for McCain, with CNN, Fox and NBC still keeping the state in play. It remains the night's most remarkable non-call.

9:16 P.M -- CNN and the AP still haven't given Texas to McCain. But by 9:30 p.m., everyone has fallen in line.

Meanwhile, Fox4 has gone to virtually non-stop local coverage, prompting periodic visits to Fox News Channel's presentation on a different non-HD tier of networks if you're a Verizon Fios cable customer.

FNC analyst Karl Rove, looking oddly out of place in a bright Halloween orange tie, sticks to his story that the United States remains a "center-right country." Otherwise he looks perhaps a bit despondent.

9:49 p.m. -- CNN's Anderson Cooper finishes his interview with filmmaker Spike Lee, who's been beamed full-bodied into the network's indoor election center but isn't really there.

"I appreciate your being with us tonight via hologram," Cooper says wryly.

"Thank you. Chill out," Lee rejoins before vanishing.

Most of CNN's souped-up presentation is impressively state-of-the art. But Lee's visit still looks no more realistic than the "beam me up" segments from NBC's original Star Trek series. Or to put it another way, his holographic likeness seems like the primitive maiden voyages of the Iraq war's in-the-field "video phone," which now almost seems like a Betamax recorder. By the next election, though, expect anchors, reporters and their guests to show up in your living room in holographic form. And I'm not kidding.

Over on HDNET, Rather gamely throws out a "Dan-ism" from his unadorned HDNet studio. They used to be staples of his election night adventures on CBS. So for old time's sake, "One would have thought you'd see rocks grow or water run uphill before you'd see Virginia for Obama." Ba-da-bum-ba.

10 p.m. -- It's official. All the networks and AP project Obama to have well over the 270 electoral votes required for election. This is a stark contrast to the 2000 and 2004 election night squeakers, which eventually went George W. Bush's way. During this campaign, he's been an invisible lame duck president, shunned by his Republican Party for the past year or so.

Conservative Fox News Channel analyst Bill Kristol praises Obama's "amazing achievement. I hope as an American he is a successful president . . . He will be in a very powerful position to govern."

McCain begins his concession speech at 10:18 p.m. and finishes it 10 minutes later. Network anchors, analysts and commentators uniformly praise it as gracious and statesmanlike.

Shortly before Obama takes the stage at 10:58 p.m., ABC correspondent Steve Osunsam, reporting from the streets of Atlanta, says that his late father told him that a black man would never become president of the United States.

"This evening, this country has proved my old man wrong," he says, fighting back tears. "And we're the better for it."

Emotions are genuine on this historic night. No matter who they are, many voters are in tears. They include Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey, otherwise mere faces in the estimated crowd of more than 125,000 gathered at Grant Park. We get brief glimpses of Jackson and Winfrey during Obama's speech, heralded by the 10:58 p.m. announcement, "Ladies and gentlemen, the next First Family of the United States."

Obama and his wife, Michelle, walk down a blue runway together, hands joined, well aware of the import of what he's about to say.

"That was one of the most subdued walks onstage I've ever seen," opines ABC analyst George Stephanopoulos, a key figure in mapping Bill Clinton's 1992 ascent to the presidency.

"Hello, Chicago," Obama says just a minute later, before a backdrop of American flags.

He praises McCain and running mate Joe Biden before assuring his two young daughters, "You have earned the new puppy that's coming with us to the White House." It's his only moment of levity in a speech that wraps at 11:15 p.m. with a brief and moving salute to Ann Nixon Cooper, born on Jan. 9, 1902 in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

Obama says he met her on the campaign trail in Atlanta, and that she has lived in times when neither women nor blacks were allowed to vote.

Ann Nixon Cooper also was "there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that 'We Shall Overcome,' " Obama tells the world. "A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen and cast her vote. Because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change."

11:15 p.m. -- Running mate Joe Biden joins Obama onstage. Other family members gather around a president-elect unlike any other. Missing is the grandmother who raised Obama, and whom he visited in Hawaii during the closing days of the campaign. She was gravely ill, and he didn't want to miss seeing her at least one last time.

Madelyn Dunham died on Sunday, at age 86, after a long illness. Obama had extolled her in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. On election night 2008, he includes her in his opening remarks -- briefly this time.

"While she's no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight, and know that my debt to them is beyond measure."

Television brought all of this home to us on a wide variety of broadcast and cable networks. And that's still no small achievement, even in this mega-informational age.