The agony of watching election coverage online

With all the times the candidates try to sneak their Web addresses into their speeches, you'd think the election had finally gone online. But online election night news coverage is hopelessly mired in an old media mindset.


CNN's infamous holographic election coverage experiment.

My wife and I officially cut the cable TV cord last April, so we're coming up on a year without traditional cable TV. Overall, we've saved close to $2,000. And, until now, it's been relatively painless. But now, with the election still heavily tied to mainstream TV coverage, we've come to realize just how mired in the last century election coverage can be.

Other than the news, almost anything we've wanted to watch has been available online in some form or another. Even programs that you can't get on Netflix or Hulu can be bought by the episode or as a season pass from the iTunes store. I can't think of a single program either my wife or I have wanted to watch on cable that we can't legally stream in some way or another.

Until you get to the election.

I've been writing about politics for years. I started writing about the lack of online live election coverage in August, when the 2016 US presidential campaign started to pick up some momentum. I wrote about my attempt to watch the first GOP debate on Fox News and -- even though we were using a legitimate stream -- Fox couldn't keep the stream going.

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It could have been too much demand. It could have been a lack of real resource commitment on the part of Fox. It could have been the gods of the Internet having a bad day. But the result was a very unpleasant experience, which would prove to be a harbinger of election watching frustration over the following months.

Throughout the summer and fall, some of the debates were available online to everyone, while others were not. Some were only available if you had cable TV service that would grant you equivalent online access to the relevant channels. Fortunately, there was always someone who captured the debate and illicitly posted it to YouTube, so even those debates that weren't viewable in real-time were watchable the next morning.

But now we are entering primary season, where real-time election coverage is a must.

As most of you know, I'm a bit of a politics sports fan. Primary election nights are like the playoffs to me. Sure, I can read the score the next morning, but I like watching the play-by-play. I wait four years to see maps with precinct results. I live for the slightly growing every hour bar chart. I am completely transfixed by the time-killing-until-new-results pundit commentary.

It does it for me.

If you want to watch our own CBS News for election coverage, you're in luck. CBSN (the online version of CBS News) is available online for free. I like CBSN -- I often provide analysis and commentary for their news reports, and they're colleagues.

But CBSN isn't enough. I have been watching CNN election coverage since the very first election CNN covered back in the 1980s. Without Wolf being Wolf and John King's increasingly-not-new tech Surface touch wall, I feel I'm missing something. I wrote for CNN for a few years, so I also know many of the people who are the time-killing pundits. An election to me just isn't an election sportscast without watching CNN.

I also like watching Fox News coverage. It's a good way to get an idea of what the majority of news watchers in the United States are seeing, and because Fox has its own style of news that's compelling in it's own way. I've been a guest on Fox News as well, so I feel like I'm among friends when watching.

But here's the thing. If you want to watch election night coverage on Fox News, live, you need a cable TV account. Period. If you have cable TV service, you can -- with marginal success -- watch a stream over the Internet. But as I mentioned in August, it's unreliable at best.

As for CNN, you can get CNN as part of the terrible Sling TV service. For those who don't know, Sling TV (as distinguished from the Sling box) is a service from Dish Network that provides live, online access to about 20 mainstream TV channels for $20/month.

So far, Sling TV is terrible. It is live TV in the worst sense of the word, because you can't time-shift, even by a half hour. There are a few limited bits of Sling TV that you can watch in delayed mode, but, for CNN in particular, not only can't you time-shift it, you also can't even pause it to grab a snack. As it turns out, the Sling TV service supports pausing streams, but CNN disallows it.

So if your spouse wants to make a comment about Donald Trump's hair, or Hillary Clinton's yellow rain slicker, or even how the heck Bernie plans to pay for it all, there's no way to pause, listen politely, and pick up where you left off.

This means that Sling TV is strictly appointment TV. If you want to watch a History Channel program, you actually have to show up in front of the video window at the time the History Channel is broadcasting it, like some primitive human from the 1980s.

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But what makes Sling truly unbearable is that it can't seem to sustain the streams. I have epic download capacity here at Camp David, but Sling constantly fails. Saturday night, attempting to watch the South Carolina primary returns, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching the little orange spinning circle. It started to seem almost futile. I thought of giving up a few times. When the Sling feed finally went black and never recovered, I quit in disgust.

I want to point out that it's entirely unlikely that the streaming problems are at my end. We've been able to watch programs on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and HBO Now without the slightest glitch. It's only been Sling TV and Fox News (basically the live news programming) that can't seem to keep up. We had a fine time watching the first episode of Stephen King's 11.22.63 on Hulu, for example. Ninety minutes and not a missed frame.

Sling also only allows one stream at a time. So when the PC application crashes and you want to pick it up on your iPhone, you can't -- because Sling thinks you're still running the PC application. So there's no way you can take your non-pauseable live TV, and walk with it into another room on another device.

You know some team of $500-an-hour lawyers were incredibly proud of themselves for forcing that limitation into the service.

Look, election night is always supposed to be about yelling at the TV. In fact, the way I knew I could be a political commentator was when my wife said, "Of course you can, honey. You've been yelling at the TV for years." But we're supposed to be yelling at the TV over politics, not because the screen has gone black for the tenth time in a night.

I mentioned this in August, but I'll repeat it now. If politicians want to reach new generations of Americans, they're going to have to find some way to convince networks to make election coverage smoothly available online. Roughly a quarter of the 18-30 demographic don't get their TV via traditional cable TV.

That's only going to get more extreme. Many kids who will be the next cycle's most sought-after voters have never, ever watched cable TV -- and if politicians want to reach these prime voters, they're going to have to cut the cord themselves.

I need my fix of live election night coverage, but I'm not willing to endure hooking up cable TV service again. I like saving thousands of dollars. I, and the legion of other online-only voters, believe it is reasonable to expect The Online to enter the modern era to help us be the informed electorate this country needs and deserves by delivering us the last, crucially important bit of television we want: live election coverage.

After all, if we can have Game of Thrones online, we should be able to watch the real game of real thrones online.

So, over the next ten months or so, I'll continue to suffer through Sling TV -- although if Fox News and CNN are smart, they'll offer a way to buy their service like CBS All Access or HBO Now do today. Make it on-demand. Make it all you can eat. Make it a reasonable price. Make it possible to pause.

If they do that, I'll be first in line to sign up to their services. I'll bet there are millions of other cord-cutting patriots who would do so as well. Otherwise, I'll promise you hold-out networks this one fact: you will continue to lose your audiences, year after year, as more and more people will demand online only. If you can't provide it, other services will.

It's ironic. CNN is known for its innovative (and sometimes wacky) ways of presenting election night coverage, including technologies like holographic versions of reporters, and weird life-size bar charts. But if CNN really wants to showcase new technology, they can figure out how to take our five bucks a month for an online subscription.

It's 2016, people. Let's act like it. The politicians can keep invoking Ronald Reagan all they want, but don't expect to get away with running your news network like you did when he was in office. You can't just close your eyes and hope the Internet goes away.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at