Cannes Lions

CNN Magic Wall

CODE AND THEORY, New York / CNN / 2020

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Overview

Background

The 2020 Presidential Election was one of the most unforgettable in modern politics. Layer in a global pandemic that made campaigning and conventions virtual for the first time—and a single election night became a nail-biting, weeks-long saga. All across the world, all eyes were on the U.S.—and the CNN Magic Wall.

The CNN Magic Wall, with John King at the controls, has been a popular and critical part of CNN’s politics and live election coverage and storytelling for almost 10+ years going back to the 2008 Iowa Caucuses. It has spawned internet memes, been a guest on Saturday Night Live, and been imitated by all of CNN’s competitors. CNN worked with Code and Theory to completely rebuild and reimagine the Magic Wall to enable more flexible and compelling data storytelling, as well as providing a more robust and secure data processing infrastructure to guarantee accuracy for live television audiences.

Idea

The CNN Magic Wall is an election data storytelling tool for on-air, live data exploration and discovery. It's designed to effectively communicate and give critical context around election results and potential election outcomes before, during, and after the election through data-driven visualizations of live and past election data, population/demographic data, and other contextual information.

To help CNN keep its edge over other news sources, we rebuilt the Wall from the ground up by creating a more flexible and scalable technical architecture and developing an ultra-fast, ultra-secure data architecture that could accommodate and process over 550 simultaneous live elections.

The 2020 Presidential Election was one of the most unforgettable in modern politics. Layer in a global pandemic that made campaigning and conventions virtual for the first time—and a single election night became a nail-biting, weeks-long saga. All across the world, all eyes were on the U.S.–and the CNN Magic Wall.

Strategy

The election results data for the 2020 primaries, conventions, mail-in ballots, early voting, day-of voting and recounts of the general election are all displayed on the Magic Wall via a robust, custom API. Additionally, the Magic Wall has a high volume of static and historical data, including historical elections going back over 40 years as well as demographic data, covid data and more. Standard U.S. maps do not reflect the way election results are provided, so for each year and race, we build custom map tiles that correspond to election results using fips

To enable broadcast producers to manage the Magic Wall for live television, we created a custom CMS. This tool allows CNN to create and upload additional static data sets, update projections for gaming apps and adjust which data and features are displayed to ensure the best on-air storytelling each time the Magic Wall is used.

Execution

The Magic Wall consists of a suite of five storytelling apps built to tell specific live-data stories or projection scenarios of Presidential, Senate, Governor, House and Primaries races. Each app is totally open ended for the on-air user to explore and features can be combined with each other to tell nearly unlimited stories.

Specifically built for a multi-touch screen, various features empower John King to select, draw, filter, highlight, pinch, pan and fling elements on screen to create the most clear and compelling data storytelling in each on-air segment.

In order to pinpoint and contextualize real-time data stories on the fly, two powerful features were layered on top of live data to help cut through the noise.

Knowing the 2020 election would likely run longer than the standard election night due to mail in ballot counting, Replay Mode offered essentially a live data time machine, allowing CNN to jump back in time to any moment, or series of moments, within the data, to provide context of how we’d gotten to the current state of results. This was critical as leads shifted in places like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona, improving storytelling for CNN while also solidifying trust in the data and results themselves.

Additionally, live collections create dynamic filters on the real-time data to enable discovery of where and what might be driving election outcomes be it higher turnouts, specific demographic makeups of an area, or “places where 2020 Biden is over-performing 2016 Clinton by more than 5%” to show shifts in party performance in a given area. These collections also served as important research tools off-air, often highlighting real-time storylines no other news network was capable of displaying or verifying.

Outcome

The reimagined Magic Wall rose to the challenge of conquering an election season battered by misinformation and conspiracy theories. As a result, it became a global phenomenon. During a time when uncertainty made so many of us feel lost, the CNN Magic Wall became a reliable, trusted beacon of hope.

–The Magic Wall consumed approximately 4.8 TB of data on election day, across over 550 simultaneous elections

–The wall was on air for nearly 100 consecutive hours

–Day 2 of election coverage (Wednesday), CNN set all-time viewership records, second only to Election Day 2016, easily winning all key audience demos including adults 25-54 and younger viewers 18-34

–CNN was the most-watched television network during day 3 of the Presidential Election

–November 2020 was CNN’s most-watched month ever and in Q4, CNN was rated #1 in All of Cable (not just news) in Total Day in Demo

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