If voters don't turn out to the polls in record numbers next week, it may be because they're busy visiting television-news sites on the Internet. TV-news sites predict record online traffic that could dwarf the day the Starr Report was released in 1998.
"We're operating under the assumption that it's going to be one of our all-time highs, if not our all-time high, in terms of traffic," says Michael Silberman, executive editor for MSNBC.com, which will handle the Internet aspect of NBC's coverage. "Presumably, on election night, the interest will be very high. But, on the other hand, it's clear that at least a chunk of the electorate is not very happy with either candidate, so they're apathetic."
There's no denying that the Internet has changed the relationship between broadcaster and viewer, and election night will be no exception as viewers log on to Web sites to learn the latest polling results, chat, read analyses, and even take part in polling questions and trivia games.
"The challenge on election night is to make it easy for people to get exactly what they want," says MSNBC.com politics producer Craig Staats. "We're going to have our anchors on-air telling viewers that, if they want personalized results, they should go to the Web site and type in their ZIP code. We're trying to make it an active experience instead of a passive one."
ABC also will be engaged in a hunt for the "active experience," with a number of "enhanced" television offerings. Its site will have three enhanced aspects: a trivia game, a chance to predict who will win certain races and see how visitors do against ABC's experts, and, most important for ABC, the chance to respond to opinion questions instantly.
The last promises to be a challenge for the enhanced-TV team. The team has created a system that will allow anchor Peter Jennings to pose questions as the night progresses and have each question posted on the site in seconds and the tabulation of the results begun as soon as the question is asked. It promises to offer fast if unscientific data that will add more tallying to a night of tallying.
"Peter Jennings can literally ask the viewers whether they agree with something a correspondent said," explains Jonathan Leess, senior vice president and general manager, ABC and Walt Disney Internet Group's Enhanced TV unit. "The reactions will show up on a graphic right behind him." He adds that ABC will make clear that the results are not scientific.
CBSnews.com Washington Editorial Director Dick Meyers wonders whether there is a deeper conflict. "If they say it's an entertainment feature, it does absolve them from a journalistic sin, but they're also wasting airtime. Also, you risk a compromise of journalistic standards, particularly if the numbers are used in the television coverage. If you open it up so that everyone can vote, you'll find the voting has a pervasive right-wing slant, because there are people that will organize vote-in campaigns."
Leess points out that the polling will be experimental and is not scientific but will still be very exciting. "This is the future of interactive TV, where it's born organically from the TV groups and we aren't shoving the technology down the viewer's throat. It's going to change the way live television is produced."
For Meyers, the goal of the CBS coverage is simple, but the execution isn't. "The basic idea we're going with is that everything CBS knows, learns and reports throughout the entire organization will be available on the Web."
During the 1996 presidential election, Meyers was anchor producer for theCBS Evening News With Dan Rather. The biggest difference he sees is that the Internet removes limits on information. "I think we have the capacity to do better, more comprehensive and more varied journalism on the Web. We aren't limited by time and space."
Another challenge for the networks is letting viewers and surfers alike know what they're missing by not visiting the other medium. Carin Dessauer, CNN Interactive executive editor, Washington, says that CNN anchor Leon Harris will be in the CNN.com newsroom and on-air reporting things of note that can be found on the Web site. "We'll emphasize all the elements of the CNN news group's coverage."
Like ABC, CNN is dipping its toes in the interactive waters, but with the help of Wink. Subscribers with the Wink service will be able to take part in election-related polls.
FoxNews.com will put its emphasis on the presidential race, providing on its home page a map that will offer information on electoral votes at a glance. "The challenge is, how do you make an important election come alive, and online coverage provides a synthesis of media," adds Laura Durkin, senior vice president of News Digital Media, the U.S. digital subsidiary of News Corp., of which FoxNews.com is the news division. "You also want to make it painless for people to learn about the issues."
She believes that online polls hold value. "While we certainly don't use these polls as any sort of neutral, scientific and objective meter of what's going on, we provide them as a forum and find them interesting as a voice of the people," Durkin explains.