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Election-Night Showdown

Networks beef up coverage for 2004 battle 10/24/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

As votes are tallied next week for President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw may tell viewers an "apparent winner" is emerging in Ohio. CBS News anchor Dan Rather might sound equally cautious, suggesting that Pennsylvania is simply "too close to estimate."

If the vocabulary seems measured, it's understandable, given the debacle in 2000. Brokaw calls this year's tight presidential race "a story of almost Shakespearean proportions." And TV news media is taking extra pains to get it right. No one wants a replay of the Bush-Gore fiasco, when conflicting results poured in, and networks rushed to declare winners. Some were forced to retract earlier victory calls.

"If there is a clear win in a state, it will be reported. But if it is tight, we will be cautious," says Marcy McGinnis, CBS senior vice president of news coverage.

After the 2000 election, the major networks–ABC, CBS, NBC/MSNBC, Fox News and CNN–disbanded their Voter News Service, a vote-counting consortium with the Associated Press, and replaced it with the National Election Pool (NEP), a mix of election results gathered by AP and exit polls from Edison Media Research.

The new systems were tested in 2002 midterm elections and network staffers have gone through rigorous testing. Among the improvements: There will be 13 absentee ballot polls, compared with three in 2000.

"No one is ever going to be 100% confident again, but we have a high degree of comfort they've addressed the underlying mistakes," says CNN's Washington bureau chief David Bohrman.

Even with the NEP improvements, TV networks have lined up additional polling and more number-crunchers. Legal experts will be on hand to decipher intricate voting irregularities and election disputes. All the networks plan to broadcast live into at least the early-morning hours—or until a clear winner emerges.

"If there is one thing we all can agree on this election," says NBC News President Neal Shapiro, "it's that every vote ought to count."

Here is a preview of what to expect from the broadcast and cable news networks on election night:

CNN

What's new:

CNN will commandeer the NASDAQ's Times Square studio in New York on election night and display voting results, maps and polls on the marketplace's 96-screen video wall. "We can have a board for every state, a national map or display any race or exit polling analysis," says CNN's David Bohrman. "It is the finest way to display data." Bohrman first dreamed up the idea in 1994, when he worked at NBC News. Ten years later, he says, the production is finally technologically possible. CNN will use its own New York control rooms to coordinate.

On the scene:

Anchor Wolf Blitzer leads the coverage from New York. Veteran political correspondent Bill Schneider will analyze exit polling. Crews will be dispatched to key battleground states, such as Ohio, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Florida, and will stake out Secretary of States' offices.

What to watch for:

CNN's legal team, led by analyst Jeffrey Toobin, will help decipher voting controversies, irregularities and litigation.

CBS

What's new:

CBS's "Decision Desk," which tabulates and reports results, will be in the studio with anchor Dan Rather and network correspondents and analysts to improve reporting. "Decision Desk" correspondent Mika Brzezinski will explain how CBS is calling races and exit-poll data.

On the scene:

Joining Rather in New York will be Face the Nation
host Bob Schieffer and 60 Minutes
correspondents Ed Bradley and Lesley Stahl. Chief White House correspondent John Roberts will analyze exit polling and legal analyst Andrew Cohen will sort through the election challenges.

What to watch for:

CBS is fine-tuning its election-night vocabulary, adding more qualifying phrases like "too close to estimate" and "not enough votes to estimate" for tight races. The network will not call a state's winner until its polls have closed.

FOX NEWS

What's new:

Fox will conduct its own voter polls to garner additional information, particularly in contested battlegrounds like Ohio and Pennsylvania. "It gives us other sources we can use with key states," says executive producer Marty Ryan. Fox first tested its own polling in the 2002 midterm elections.

On the scene:

Fox News anchor Brit Hume leads coverage, with analysts Fred Barnes, Mort Kondracke, Juan Williams and Bill Kristol. Chris Wallace will report on exit polls, and correspondent Michael Barone will man the decision desk.

What to watch for:

Fox will deploy 20 crews around the country, five more teams than it used in 2000. They've staffed up in hot-button locales, like Ohio and Florida, and will position some crews at Secretary of States' offices.

NBC/MSNBC

What's new:

NBC is transforming Rockefeller Plaza outside its New York headquarters into Democracy Plaza, a combination of TV studios and public exhibits on the history of American democracy. NBC News, as well as MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo, will broadcast live on election night from the plaza. The famed Rockefeller Center ice rink will be replaced with a 65-foot map showing states won by Kerry and Bush, and a giant bar graph of the candidates' electoral votes will be displayed on a nearby building.

On the scene:

Tom Brokaw, anchoring his final election before stepping aside in December, leads coverage with Meet the Press
host Tim Russert. Nightly News
heir Brian Williams will cover exit-poll results. Hardball
host Chris Matthews anchors MSNBC's coverage from an outdoor set.

What to watch for:

NBC News' Chip Reid will report on voting irregularities and demonstrate voting technology, from paper ballots to computer terminals, being used across the country. Voters can call a toll-free hotline—1-800-MYVOTE1—to lodge complaints on voting problems and irregularities, which NBC will investigate. NBC won't call a state until all the polls there have closed.

ABC NEWS

What's new:

ABC has stepped up training for its "Decision Desk" staffers and added three statistical experts to help crunch the voting data. ABC News Now, the broadcaster's 24-7 digital and broadband network, will provide round-the-clock coverage.

On the scene:

Peter Jennings anchors coverage, joined by George Stephanopoulos, Cokie Roberts, political director Mark Halperin and presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

What to watch for:
Correspondent Jake Tapper focuses on voting irregularities, and GMA Weekend
anchor Kate Snow reports on congressional and gubernatorial elections. ABC will unveil additional coverage details this week.

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