In the debacle of TV's coverage of the 2000 election, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN and the Associated Press discovered just how antiquated their jointly owned vote-counting operation—Voter News Service—had become. So did most of the television-viewing world.
As a result, the partners are financing a $10 million to $15 million top-to-bottom overhaul of the system.
The problem now: With just a week to go before the midterm elections, questions remain about just how much of the made-over VNS will be ready for action.
"I think everybody would rather be further along than we are this close to the election, but the issues, as they come up, are being addressed and dealt with," said AP Director of Election Information Tom Jory. "I've got my fingers crossed as I think everybody else does" that the VNS exit-poll service will be ready.
Because of errors of the recent past, though, on-air coverage of next week's election by the networks will have noticeable differences, particularly later projections of winners and detailed reports explaining how the decision to call a race is made (see box, page 29).
Indeed, it's almost as if being consistently last to predict winners may, oddly, become a badge of honor.
The networks have at least one backup system in place to double-check the VNS vote count and even replace it if something goes wrong on Election Night: That's the Associated Press, which showed its reliability in the Florida recount.
The 2000 presidential election fiasco in a nutshell: VNS computer models miscalculated the winner in Florida, twice—first for Gore, then for Bush. The problem: The vote was too close for the sample on which the computer models based the calculation.
The models also failed to consider the absentee ballots cast in Florida, a sizable 12% for the entire state. Aggravating the situation was a VNS computer glitch that prevented AP data from being fed in and compared with VNS data.
The networks were embarrassed, and Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) even suggested that their collective pro-Gore bias was reflected in their projections.
This time around, the networks have new fail-safe methods, the most extensive being CNN's new vote-counting system, called RealVote.
CNN News Group Political Director Tom Hannon says RealVote is similar to VNS but is concentrated in what CNN believes will be the 10 states with the closest contests. Hannon wouldn't identify the states for competitive reasons, but they almost surely include Florida (where the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, is involved in a tight race for reelection), Minnesota and South Dakota.
The other networks talk in vaguer terms about having extra people on the ground in states with highly contested races.
The VNS overhaul is designed as a four-year process, with the basic systems slated to be in place by Election Day. Additional bells and whistles needed mainly for the presidential race are set for 2004.
The hard lesson learned in 2000 was that, in a close election—and it doesn't get any closer than that one—VNS could not be depended on to deliver reliable data.
Up to then, VNS had served very well, producers say.
"I think we took the systems at VNS for granted and expected them to perform a certain way," says Marty Ryan, executive producer for Fox News election coverage.
CBS News Vice President Linda Mason, a VNS board member, concurs: "We were spoiled because the system worked for 30 years with so few mistakes we didn't give it a second thought."
Network executives say there is no guarantee that VNS won't fail in the future. But the networks are investing a pile of dough to ensure that it doesn't. The news organizations are acquiring state-of-the-art hardware as well as completely rewritten software based on reams of exhaustive white papers and evaluations from outside consultants.
The rub is, the networks have elections to cover as the overhaul is implemented.
The big piece of VNS still in question for next week is the exit polling. As of last week, staffers were working hard to remove bugs from that system.
If the bugs aren't fixed? "We'll adjust," says one network news executive.
VNS chief Ted Savaglio confirms that the vote-counting system is ready. As for exit polling, he says, it is likely that some pieces will be ready while others may not be. "We'll get there. The main priority is caution."
The good news is that the basic vote-counting operation appears ready for action.
"The most important thing is the vote count, and that seems to be working well," says NBC News Senior Vice President Bill Wheatley.
If the VNS vote-counting system does go down, users have the AP service to fall back on. They can also compare VNS and AP data for discrepancies.
Sometime today, the VNS partners will learn whether the revamped exit-polling operation has been successfully debugged. A major technical rehearsal was conducted over the weekend.
The news organizations have relied on exit-polling data to give viewers a feel for how particular elections are going and why citizens vote the way they do. The data is also part of projections on winners and would be missed if it's not available.
But, this year, recalling Dan Rather's assurances on CBS vote projections in 2000, you can take it to the bank that, if the networks get even a whiff that any data coming out of VNS is flawed, it will be tabled. Says ABC News Vice President Jeffrey Schneider, "We're going to go with those pieces of VNS that we have 150% confidence in, and those pieces that don't give us that confidence level will be put off to the side."