Election night coverage has traditionally been network-centric, but this year’s coverage will include more contributions from local stations than ever, particularly in contested states.
That’s because the 2000 election demonstrated that the story of a national election is often rooted in a local market.
While local broadcasters in big markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are planning significant coverage, stations in battleground states including Florida, Colorado and Ohio bear a greater burden, since the spotlight will be on such states.
“It’s the most important presidential election we’ve covered,” said Fred Young, senior VP of news for the Hearst-Argyle station group. Hearst-Argyle swing state stations such as NBC affiliate WESH-TV in Orlando, Fla., ABC station WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh and NBC station WLWT-TV in Cincinnati are poised to provide local coverage for the networks if need be, he said.
Stations in Florida will be on their toes since voter concerns already were cropping up last week. Florida has 1.5 million new registered voters since the 2000 election, and some voters are concerned they may not have registered properly, said Shannon High-Bassalik, VP, news operations, Viacom South Florida Television Station Group.
“That’s why we really think there will be a lot of problems. That’s a huge amount [of new voters],” she said. “We are expecting to get the calls and people saying, `My vote isn’t being counted.”‘
Florida has also implemented electronic voting to replace the problematic hanging chads of the 2000 election. The system lacks paper backups, though, and as such raises the specter of what would happen in the event of a power or software failure, said Brian Lawlor, general manager of Scripps-owned NBC station WPTV in West Palm Beach, Fla.
The station is prepared to be on-air all night if necessary. “Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania will be nip and tuck, and it will really come down to 1 to 2 percentage points, hundreds of votes,” he said. “Making sure the local count is right and is reported in a timely manner is critical to the entire country.
“Here, one little polling place in one little town in one little market could absolutely have an impact on how the state goes and how the country goes, so as a local station we have to be there because they could have national and international ramifications.”
Neighboring WSVN-TV, Miami’s Sunbeam-owned Fox station, will start with all-local coverage at 5 p.m. and will not sign off until a president is named, said Alice Jacobs, VP of news. Florida’s hot this election for many reasons-not only because of the recount there four years ago but also because it’s still a swing state and the site of a critical Senate race and a fiercely contested mayoral race, Ms. Jacobs said. “We are preparing for a much longer night,” Ms. Jacobs said.
Nor do local stations plan on calling the presidential race or, in many cases, even a victor in their own states. WSVN, for one, will rely on the Associated Press to call the election. No one wants a repeat of the 2000 election, when the presidential race was mistakenly called early due to problems with the Voter News Service. That system also failed in the midterm elections of 2002 and has now gone away in ignominious oblivion. This year, the AP will shepherding the vote collection and tabulation for the National Election Pool created by ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, NBC News and the AP.
Colorado is also a state that’s expected to be an axis of election news, with a key Senate race, a close presidential race and a ballot initiative that could split its electoral votes according to the popular vote. Viacom-owned CBS station KCNC-TV, Denver, plans to air three distinct broadcasts on election night-network coverage with local cut-ins on KCNC, a live local broadcast on local PBS affiliate KBDI-TV featuring KCNC’s main anchors and a separate broadcast produced exclusively for the Web site. “At a time when we are looking for so many different ways to connect with viewers and to provide information, this is a new alternative for those who would prefer to get that information over the Internet,” said Angie Kucharski, news VP and station manager for KCNC.
In Ohio, Fox-owned WJW-TV in Cleveland plans to have a crew on standby in the capital, Columbus, to cover potential stories involving the secretary of state, said Greg Easterly, VP and news director for WJW. “We have to be prepared for Ohio being another Florida.”
Elsewhere in Ohio, NBC-owned WCMH-TV, Columbus, will be stationed near voting booths and plans to be conservative in any prognostications on outcomes, said Stan Sanders, VP of news for the station. Last week Sen. Kerry and President Bush were in a dead heat in Ohio.
According to WCMH, the State of Ohio Board of Elections has registered more than 400,000 new people since 2000.
As part of the effort to step up local contributions, NBC-owned WNBC-TV in New York expects to send reporters to the candidates’ headquarters, something it didn’t do four years ago. “Everyone is more prepared this time for the possibility of complications,” said Dan Forman, station manager and senior VP of news.
Even though New York is in the blue column for Sen. Kerry, local coverage is still critical given that international security and terrorism angles have a particular resonance in there, said Kenny Plotnik, VP and news director at ABC-owned WABC-TV in New York. “I don’t believe anything until the polls are over. Though it’s a national election, local stations can also put a local face and perspective [on it],” he said.