11/07/2012 04:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Use Multiple TVs And Other Screens To Watch The Election? You're Not Alone

It was hard to decide where to turn my head.

Walking into my friends' apartment at 8 p.m. to watch the 2012 election results come in, I saw not two, not three, not four, but five screens set up for the event. A big-screen Panasonic TV was tuned to CNN. An iPad placed directly to its left was playing ABC. A laptop to the right showed NBC. Another laptop stayed on, mapping results for the presidential race as they came in. And a monitor connected to that showed the New York Times website with live results for the House and Senate races.

Those, plus the laptop I brought, gave me six different screens to look at -- not including the smartphones that nearly all 15 people in this Brooklyn four-story walk-up had in their hands. In 2012, we've lived on the web for so long that we aren't content just having a television station program coverage for us. With multiple screens, we program it ourselves.

5 screens

That living room wasn't the only one on Election Night 2012 with screen overload. HuffPost readers wrote in on Facebook that they were shifting between screens too. "One 70-inch TV. One 15 in laptop, my tablet and my cellphone," one said. "Oh, and mom on the phone telling me her frustrations!" "3 = TV, Laptop and Smartphone," another wrote.

Saturation with a second (and third and fourth) screen wasn't as pervasive during the previous presidential election in 2008. The iPhone was just a year old, the iPad a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye. Computers, and the websites they connected to, were slower, so sticking just with what the television offered made more sense.

Four years later, the friends I watched the election with Tuesday wouldn't have been content with that. They'd grown too accustomed to multiple screens and sources to leave news coverage up to the powers-that-be at a single news network.

"Pete, can you Google the Maine gay marriage results?" one friend asked. He was referring to "Question 1" on the Pine Tree State ballot: "Do you want to allow the State of Maine to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?" This friend assumed, as the polls augured, that President Barack Obama's reelection was in the bag. But what was less certain, and consequently what he cared about more, was the fate of ballot measures pertaining to gay marriage in four states, including Maine.

Manning a MacBook, Pete confirmed the results before the networks got around to announcing them: Voters had made gay marriage legal in Maine.

Pete also dug through coverage by The New York Times and HuffPost to monitor many U.S. House elections which -- like the Maine initiative -- was eschewed by major networks in favor of the White House. Meanwhile, folks with iPhones scrolled through Twitter to read off musings from pundits like Salon's Matt Yglesias and announce that the Denver Post had called Colorado for Obama, before NBC or CNN.

Using the big-screen TV, we cycled through the three major cable networks. With so many different media being monitored, we knew, for example, to switch to NBC when it became the first network to call Ohio -- and thus, the entire election -- for the president. We also knew to switch to Fox News when Karl Rove started to argue with his own network over whether or not Obama had won.

"Who wants to watch Fox News for five minutes?" someone asked the room. A majority raised their hands.

Having multiple devices also lets the average viewer -- instead of just political journalists -- create their own content. It can get meta. There was one moment when someone took a picture of someone else taking a picture of the iPad showing ABC's Amy Walter, whose uncanny resemblance to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow caught our attention.

Essentially, this living room and others across the country became information aggregators with multiple people with their heads in multiple screens, culling the best content from TV or the Internet for the entire room.

Despite tired talk of 2012 being a social media election, television still played a starring role on election night. What TV execs ought to realize, however, is that they no longer have our rapt attention. With so many screens, we're able to tune into them all at once. And that lets us have our own conversation.