Better Late Than Wrong

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Come election night, television has to get it right, even if it means not getting it first.

That’s the consensus of TV news executives, who will be in the spotlight as they attempt to avoid a repeat of 2000, when flip-flopping miscalls turned a close presidential race into a black eye for their profession.

Viewership of political coverage has surged leading to this year’s election, and no one wants a repeat of the come-to-Jesus appearance before a congressional committee or the election-night snafus that ultimately led to the death of the creaky polling and vote-counting organization run by a consortium of the five major TV news organizations and the Associated Press. “The stakes are very large and the public realizes that and is paying attention,” said Bill Wheatley, VP, NBC News. “There are life-and-death issues in this campaign, and they are being played out against the backdrop of war on terrorism and war on Iraq.”

With two weeks still to go in a hard-fought political season, no one can reliably predict the outcome of the presidential and numerous other key races, but voter turnout is expected to be high-up from the usual 50 percent to as much as 60 percent by some estimates. There appears to be increased interest in the process compared to 2000. Coverage of the Republican and Democratic nomination conventions produced significant ratings growths for the 24-hour news channels that devoted long nights to covering and arguing the issues.

The most striking barometer of electorate interest so far is the 113 percent increase in gross viewership for the three debates between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry versus the three presidential debates in 2000.

TV news executives have modified their thinking about election results in order to be sure they deliver the most precise election information they can to the highly interested public.

When attempts to repair the patchwork of technology known as the Voter News Service failed in midterm elections of 2002, VNS was disbanded and succeeded by the National Election Pool, which is run by the same consortium of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, NBC News and the Associated Press. The AP will be doing all the raw vote collection and tabulation.

The NEP system “will handle everything we have thought of,” said Linda Mason, VP, public affairs, CBS News, who is among those overseeing NEP.

Beyond that, how well the individual networks perform is largely up to them.

“Caution is the watchword. Nobody likes what happened in 2000. We don’t intend to be embarrassed again,” said Mr. Wheatley. “We think we are in a race to be right in calling the election.”

“It is always good to be first. It’s very, very competitive, but we’re putting a premium on being correct,” said Marty Ryan, executive producer of political coverage, Fox News.

While the adjustments in election-night infrastructure and thought process at the individual networks vary, there is one common theme.

“There will be an effort made to explain what data we are looking at and how we are arriving at our decisions” when calling winners or projecting outcomes, said Dan Merkle, decision desk director, ABC News.

ABC News has increased the training of those working on the decision desk, which identifies races that can be called or projected. It also has added an expert oversight team to further review the data being used to make those calls.

“CBS is going to be transparent. From the get-go the viewer is going to understand the [CBS News] process,” Ms. Mason said. CBS News has assigned a correspondent to report from the decision desk, which has been moved into the ground-floor election-night studio-it previously operated in a room on the third floor-to make it easier to be part of the overall information flow.

Election-night planners also have boosted the font size of the word “estimates” in CBS’s graphics, some of which anchor Dan Rather will have under his own control.

“I think it is so appropriate now to almost immerse yourself in the data,” said David Bohrman, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and VP of news and production. CNN has booked the 96-screen video wall at the NASDAQ MarketSite as well as the seven-story NASDAQ tower that overlooks Times Square to run its coverage.

What was, in 2000, CNN’s decision desk in Atlanta, is being transformed into an “election analysis center” in a new studio at the Time Warner Center in New York, which will be covered by two CNN correspondents who explain to viewers what CNN is doing and why.

Political director Tom Hannon, who had previously spent election night in the control room, will be with the election analysis team, which will include about a dozen statistical analysts CNN has hired to “look at every bit of data” coming in. “Our general counsel wants to be there, as well,” said Mr. Bohrman, who is reinstituting a graphics display of too-close-to-call races.

“I’m probably going to be hardest one to convince to call a race,” said Mr. Bohrman.

Mr. Ryan said Fox News’s internal process has been changed little and still will evolve around a four- or five-person decision desk.

Like his counterparts, he expressed confidence in the systems primed for election night. He already has begun running “real-time rehearsals” at Fox News.

And “since the end of the primary season, NEP has been stress-testing the system,” he said.