Tom Sutcliffe: They all called it: this was definitely historic

Jeremy Vine conjured up a strange virtual sewage pipe to explain electoral college votes
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"This is an historic moment – I don't think you can deny that," David Dimbleby said to one of his guests, shortly after midnight. Quite why he anticipated contradiction from her I can't imagine because if there was one word that dominated the television coverage of the presidential election it was "historic".

From the News at Ten onwards it sounded again and again: "Whoever wins will create history," said Huw Edwards. "Tonight means history in the making", said someone else. "How historic do you think this is?" Jeremy Paxman asked Maureen Dowd on Newsnight, at least trying to quantify the evening's favourite bit of bombast.

Voter after voter, vox-popped on the sidewalk, talked about history, John Simpson talked about history, even Christopher Hitchens talked about history. But what nobody could say with any confidence, for at least two long hours, was exactly what the history books would record. That's the useful thing about history – as far as punditry goes; pretty much anything that subsequently happens will qualify.

While we waited, we hads time to compare competing electoral machines. The BBC was running an Obama-style operation – well funded and hugely well-staffed. They appeared to have an army in place on the ground, and Jeremy Vine somewhere in cyberspace – doing a lot of Minority Report-style graphics whizzing with a magic map. Waving arms like Herbert von Karajan during a turbulent passage of Beethoven, Vine zoomed in an electoral microscope, dissecting the vote at a level of detail that would almost instantly become pointless when the results started to flood in.

ITV, by contrast, had someone else's army on the ground – piggybacking on NBC's coverage and scattering a modest handful of its own reporters around key sites. While Vine was conjuring up a strange kind of virtual sewage pipe in a baffling attempt to explain how vote percentage might translate into electoral college votes and David Dimbleby was manipulating the stops of a three-keyboard organ of commentators and opinionators, Alastair Stewart was sitting in relatively cosy intimacy with Bob Worcester and Jon Culshaw, the latter on hand to address the implications of the result for the lampoon trade.

As if aware a comedy gap might be opening up, the BBC almost immediately cut to their New York election party, where Ricky Gervais had been buttonholed to give his views on Tina Fey's Palin skit and answer a critical question: "Who would David Brent vote for?" Brent, not entirely unexpectedly, was projected to vote for the bandwagon that still had four wheels on it. But still there was no clear sense of whether it was rolling with any speed in the desired direction.

The spokes finally began to turn at 1am, when Pennsylvania and New Hampshire were both called for Obama – and when that happened Hitchens jumped for the chance to be first to put his reputation squarely on the line: "That's it... it's over," he said. And in the cutaways to Grant Park, where Obama supporters were gathering for what they hoped would be a victory party, you could sense that the mood had moved from jittery excitement to something more like open jubilation. The Pennsylvania result in particular – McCain's last best hope for sideways swerve to the presidency – generated a huge cheer. Watching that – and seeing the looks on many of those faces – two questions arose. What kind of hangover follows this kind of intoxication? And why was it I could hear the faint, distorted strains of "Things Can Only Get Better"?