Viewers sometime prefer to stick with the familiar. Cable News Network rented out the floor of the NASDAQ exchange last Tuesday for its coverage of the presidential election, using a huge wall of monitors to track results from each state.
NBC News and MSNBC transformed Manhattan’s Rockefeller Plaza into “Democracy Plaza,” placing anchors on an outdoor set that overlooked an ice rink depicting a huge map of the United States. The states were colored blue or red after a race was called for President Bush or his challenger, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Fox News Channel didn’t do anything unusual for the election, leaving anchor Brit Hume to lead the coverage from his regular studio at Fox’s headquarters.
The result: Fox News, which was already leading the all-news ratings war, had its best night in history, drawing 8 million viewers in primetime, and more than doubling its ratings from the 2000 presidential election.
CNN ratings were flat compared to 2000, while MSNBC dropped 3%.
For days, the showdown between Bush and Kerry had been painted as a possible repeat of the 2000 presidential election, as polls taken before the election suggested a close race.
The all-news marketing push of election coverage began weeks before the election, and other cable networks looked to use the tight race to boost their own election-night coverage, from all-news newcomer ABC News Now to Comedy Central’s The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
When Nov. 2 rolled around, CNN and MSNBC devoted chunks of their daytime programming, as polling locations remained open, to hype that night’s coverage.
Adding a sense of urgency to its coverage, CNN began running a constant countdown-clock graphic Tuesday morning, telling viewers at 11 a.m. that there were eight hours to go before the first polling sites closed.
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, who headed the network’s coverage, ran a segment at 5:20 p.m. Tuesday, walking viewers through its wall-sized monitors at the NASDAQ’s Market Site in New York’s Times Square. The segment didn’t contain any information about the election — it was essentially a marketing pitch for that night’s coverage.
“There’s going to be no lag between what we know and our viewers know,” Blitzer told viewers.
MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews ran a similar segment at 6:02 p.m. Tuesday, showing off the Democracy Plaza set and telling viewers about the “next seven hours and beyond hours of coverage.” Matthews wasn’t kidding — he didn’t leave the air until after 5 a.m., as he and other network anchors pulled all-nighters, as the close race, especially in Ohio, prevented all of the networks from calling the election for Bush until after Kerry conceded the race Wednesday morning.
As the night wore on, MSNBC’s outdoor set began to sound similar to a football tailgate party, as passers-by gathered behind the set, screaming as state after state was called for Bush or Kerry, with some people in the crowd taunting those who favored an opposing candidate. The noise may have distracted some viewers, but Matthews, reporter Andrea Mitchell and anchor Joe Scarborough kept their cool.
TRANQUIL AT CNN
It was just the opposite at CNN’s tranquil indoor set at NASDAQ’s headquarters in Times Square, which even sounds quiet during a regular trading day, when CNBC and other networks file reports from the floor. When CNN’s Larry King coughed at 8:13 p.m., viewers heard the sound echo around the set.
The wall-sized screens were effective at times, such as when CNN ran side-by-side video from several polling sites that remained open late Tuesday night, giving viewers a sense of being there.
But reporters Jeff Greenfield and Carlos Watson appeared awkward at other times, such as when Greenfield began using a tic-tac-toe-style grid of monitors to explain some key issues, evoking images of similar sized screens used by Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek.
Caution was the buzzword for all network anchors Tuesday night, as the networks, which incorrectly called former vice president Al Gore as the winner of Florida in 2000, looked to avoid repeat mistakes.
The networks dropped the Voter News Service organization they used to incorrectly call the 2000 race, relying instead on exit polls from the National Election Pool service formed by Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research.
Some of the early exit-poll data gathered by the networks, which showed Kerry on his way to a victory, appeared to be inaccurate. While the networks wouldn’t officially call a winner in a state until local polls closed, some of the data were leaked to Web sites, and some anchors managed to discuss the early exit-poll numbers before local polls closed.
VANESSA KERRY ITEM
At 6:07 p.m., Fox News reporter Carl Cameron told viewers he ran into Kerry’s daughter, Vanessa, on an elevator. “Somebody in the elevator suggested that some of the exit-poll data was leaning toward Kerry. She obviously didn’t want to hear that. As soon as the doors opened, [she] raced across the hotel lobby to find some wood to knock on,” Cameron said.
MSNBC used a similar tactic at 6:22 p.m., as reporter Norah O’Donnell told viewers the Bush and Kerry campaigns were responding to reports on the Internet about exit-poll results.
Fox News was the first network to call the crucial state of Ohio for Bush, at 12:41 a.m. Wednesday. NBC News called Ohio for Bush 18 minutes later, and at 1:52 a.m., Blitzer told CNN viewers that the network believed the state was too close to call because there were 600,000 ballots that had yet to be counted.
For several hours Tuesday night, there wasn’t much major news, as most of the states that the networks were able to call for Bush or Kerry had been long anticipated, and results in key swing states such as Ohio or Arizona were too close to call.
ABC News Now relied on interviewing patrons in a Boston pub around 10:30 p.m. “What we can’t figure out yet is if people are drinking because they are happy or sad, but I can confirm that there is a lot of drinking going on here tonight,” ABC reporter Jody Hassett told viewers.
The digital network, which ABC simulcasts on the Internet, has a young, edgy feel, and relies on new technology such as Wi-Fi video hookups, which malfunctioned at times. New ABC reporter Jonathan Karl, a CNN veteran, laughed at one point, after asking producers, “Do we have this graphic ready, guys?”
An anchor responded: “No, we have nothing, but let’s ad-lib instead. None of the graphics are ready.”
'DAILY SHOW’ YUKS
Comedy Central viewers got perhaps the most laughs Tuesday night, as The Daily Show With Jon Stewart pulled a 1.6 rating and 2.1 million total viewers for its “Election Night 2004: Prelude to a Recount” coverage, the program’s second-best performance ever.
Stewart’s reports included a segment that featured a reporter asking a doctor if he could contract genital warts after using an antiquated voting booth that contained a grimy curtain.
Fox News was the highest-rated all-news channel from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. on election night, averaging a 5.1 rating. That topped CNN’s 4.2 and MSNBC’s 2.0 rating during the same time period.
CNN had the most popular Web site on election night, setting a new record of 650 million page views, which it said made it No. 1 for the night.