Originally created 11/05/02

TV networks cover first big election since Florida fiasco

NEW YORK -- It's the first big Election Night since the major television networks messed up - big-time, to borrow a phrase popularized by Vice President Cheney two years ago.

Why should they be trusted again?

"I'd like to think we've learned a lesson, all of us, a lesson in humility," said CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield, who will be on camera for several hours Tuesday for midterm election coverage.

Election Night viewers should expect to see more cautious anchors. Networks are desperate not to make the same mistakes, and are testing complex new systems designed to replace the ones that failed in 2000.

Armchair politicians should also plan on staying up very late to find out which party will control Congress, the night's big story.

In some ways, 2000 was a "perfect storm" that drenched the networks, Greenfield said. An extraordinarily close presidential election, down to an extraordinarily close race in Florida, exposed previously unseen weaknesses.

Television networks proclaimed Al Gore the winner in Florida, took it back, declared George W. Bush the new president, took that back and then waited with the rest of the country for several weeks for the election to be decided.

"In some ways, the confusion at the networks that night reflected the confusion that was happening on the ground," said "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos.

Still, that doesn't excuse jumping the gun, ABC's Stephanopoulos said, "and that's not going to happen this time."

The cable news networks - CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC - all plan extensive political coverage Tuesday. ABC, CBS and NBC will give hourly updates, then one-hour summaries at 10 p.m.

Don't expect many of the whiplash-inducing projections, where one minute after a state's voting booths shut down a network has declared someone the winner.

"I can tell from the mood of this place that it's very sober about accuracy and not necessarily being the first with projections, but being the most accurate," said Chris Matthews, who will anchor MSNBC's coverage.

That, in itself, would be a shift. In past elections, competitive networks would monitor their rivals and if others were first with a projection, voices would be raised.

"Professional pride may be invested in not saying anything until the numbers are actually in," Stephanopoulos said. "The incentives are working the other way this time."

The networks spent millions of dollars completely rebuilding Voter News Service, a consortium that counts votes, conducts exit polls and helps project winners. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and The Associated Press are members.

VNS will also make available to the networks the results of an independent vote-counting operation run by the AP. CNN is taking an additional step, counting votes itself to help project winners in 10 states with competitive contests.

There were also questions, less than a week before the election, about whether kinks in the new VNS system would limit the amount of information available from exit polls of voters.

That all adds up to more waiting time for results.

In past elections, most television viewers probably weren't aware that VNS even existed. That may change this year. Networks say they will lift the curtain to explain their sources of information and why they're doing what they're doing.

CBS has assigned a reporter, Anthony Mason, to tell how the network makes projections.

"My job is essentially to be there to explain the system," Mason said. "If there's a particular race that may tip the balance of the Senate and we're unable to call it, my job is to say why we can't call it."

The professionals expect control of the Senate to be the night's big story, with sidebars being control of the House, how the vote plays as a report card for President Bush and how big names like Elizabeth Dole, Walter Mondale and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend fare.

Chances are that control of the Senate won't be clear during ABC, CBS and NBC's prime-time hours on the East Coast, especially with tight races anticipated west of that time zone. The networks will deliver fresh reports for the West Coast and make news available in the late-night hours.

"It's going to be like watching the Academy Awards, where the best-picture award is at the end of the night," Matthews said. "The rest of the time they will be doing the best supporting actress categories. It's a good cable story because it's going to take a long time."

For the networks, the night's unspoken context will be whatever steps are taken toward regaining credibility.

Because midterm election coverage is less-watched than presidential years, and with the first real test of a new vote-counting and projection system, Tuesday night will effectively be a rehearsal for the 2004 presidential contest.

"We will ask our viewers to give us another chance on this," said Bill Wheatley, executive vice president of NBC News. "We were mortified by what happened in 2000 and we're determined to win back the confidence of our viewers."

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