To befuddled British viewers seeking the most informed analysis of the American election results, he was the wizard of the magic wall: an encyclopaedic guide whose knowledge of the Florida panhandle was matched only by his facility with a massive iPad.
Now John King’s status as an international cult figure has been acknowledged by his counterparts in Britain, who have helped him become the first overseas presenter to be nominated for a prestigious RTS television journalism award.
King, who has been more dubiously honoured with the threat of a UK-based fanclub and many, many memes, is on the shortlist for network presenter of the year – alongside the BBC’s Clive Myrie and Victoria Derbyshire – for his work as CNN’s results analyst. The award and its predecessor categories have been running since 2002.
King said he was “deeply honoured” by the news, which several friends in London passed on to him on Monday. “I think it’s more about the compelling story we’ve been covering than it is about me,” he told the Guardian. “I was blown away [by that interest]. I took it as engagement in what was just a fascinating election night that became an election week.”
If a UK fanclub ever did get off the ground, he added, he would “love to buy them a drink”.
King’s nomination, and CNN’s in the news channel of the year category, are vindication of the broadcaster’s decision to run much of its US coverage of Joe Biden’s victory without interruption in Britain. While it had much smaller audiences than the BBC or Sky, it enjoyed high scores for audience trust, and significantly increased its global audience month on month. It won plaudits from the Twitter nerderati, who luxuriated in King and his colleagues’ unapologetically wonkish analysis (and frequently recycled it as their own).
King, who has admitted that he slept three hours a night in the days after the election and typically drinks a whole pot of coffee in the morning, said he first became aware of the level of international interest in his coverage when trying to wind down before bed on election night.
“When I got home, before I could get to sleep, I was trying to unwind a little bit with a glass of wine at home – I was full of adrenaline,” he said. “That’s when I started to see so much of the feedback and the questions coming from overseas, and the UK in particular. It was simply mind-blowing.”
Jon Allsop, who writes the Columbia Journalism Review’s daily US newsletter from London, suggested in November that King was so popular in part because of the contrast of his approach to that taken on election nights in the UK, quoting a friend who told him: “John King turns a trickle of data into a bombardment of analysis, which is a pleasant change from the jovial but ultimately pointless interviews with political hasbeens and minor celebrities on British election nights.”
“It’s something to do with his demeanour,” Allsop said. “He communicates, in quite a calm way, an enormous amount of information at great speed.”
King said that when he first started to use CNN’s wall system, “I was so frightened by the thing” – but now it was second nature. “My hands are my brain,” he added. “What numbers do I need? What do I see changing in front of me? Well, go get it. Go.”
While King’s is the most eye-catching of the RTS nominations, the BBC is the frontrunner for the prestigious awards, with 23 nominations across 19 categories. ITV and Sky News both garnered 10 nominations. The winners will be announced on 24 February – assuming none of the losers makes baseless claims of foul play and demands a recount.