Debate over the merits of pregnant chads, swinging-door chads and other minutia drew huge ratings for cable's all-news networks, as election-night coverage stretched on for a second week.
It may have not been exciting as the first election night, when the networks kept viewers on the edge of their seats with multiple blown calls and retractions. But millions tuned in to wall-to-wall coverage of such fare as Florida election workers holding ballots up to the light to determine whether holes punched by voters left perforations that were "swinging" or only "dimpled."
All of the networks blew their pre-election fourth-quarter averages away. Cable News Network led the pack with a 1.45 total-day Nielsen Media Research rating and 1.4 million households for the eight days starting Election Day (Nov. 7 through Nov. 14), topping its fourth-quarter average by 230 percent.
MSNBC placed No. 2 in total-day ratings for the same period, with a 0.96 rating and 589,000 households (up 232 percent), just ahead of Fox News Channel's 0.94 rating and 648,000 households (up 129 percent).
The networks grappled for any and all bits of news, often running unedited pool video simultaneously. They regularly interrupted talking-head segments for "breaking news alerts," which could turn out to be photo ops, such as Vice President Al Gore playing touch football with his kids or hopeful Gore successor Dick Cheney rapping with campaign workers.
But there were a few scoops. Seven minutes before Gore's 6:35 p.m. press conference on Wednesday, MSNBC reporter Chip Reed "was the first, at 6:28 p.m., to report what the vice president was going to tell viewers," MSNBC anchor Brian Williams reminded his audience after the press conference.
A day earlier, out-of-breath MSNBC producer Laurie Singer called in with a larger scoop, at 12:50 p.m. She read a court decision that upheld a recount deadline, while CNN and FNC were forced to wait a few minutes for a court official to read the ruling.
In some cases, the networks made their own news. FNC, the first network to declare Texas Gov. George W. Bush was president-elect, came under fire when dozens of print publications revealed that FNC's election-desk chief, John Ellis, is Bush's first cousin.
The timing was particularly bad for FNC, which has persistently battled perceptions of a pro-Republican bias.
The New Yorker
ran a feature on Ellis last week, in which it said he shared exit-polling data with Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"He was hired by Fox because of his ability, not his bloodline," FNC vice president of news John Moody wrote in an internal memo to FNC staffers obtained last week. He noted that Ellis had worked for NBC for 11 years, and played a prominent role in its 1988 election team.
"His status with Fox News is under review," Moody added.
FNC addressed the issue for viewers toward the end of Wednesday's episode of
The O'Reilly Factor. Although host Bill O'Reilly emphasized he was angry at Ellis for jeopardizing FNC's credibility by talking to his Bush cousins while he ran FNC's news desk, he attributed the backlash to "partisan attacks against this news channel because we're so successful."
O'Reilly also brought FNC analyst Susan Estrich on the show to vouch for Ellis and the network. Estrich, a former campaign manager for Michael Dukakis, told viewers Ellis fed her exit polling data in during the 1988 presidential election, when he was at NBC News, suggesting that there was nothing unusual in what he did.
FNC spokesman Brian Lewis said the network didn't allow concerns about its perception affect its decision to hire Ellis to work on the campaign. "If Al Gore's cousin was a great number cruncher, we would have hired him too," he said.
Officials at CNN and MSNBC said none of their political team staff members are related to Gore or Bush.
CNN TOPS PRIME
CNN led news-network primetime ratings for the first eight days (Tuesday to Tuesday), averaging a 2.27 rating and 1.8 million households. FNC placed second, with a 1.54 rating and 858,000 households, followed by MSNBC, which pulled a 1.36 rating and 836,000 households.
The ratings battle saw FNC take some heat on another front last week, after CNN and MSNBC complained to Nielsen that an ad FNC ran in
and other newspapers and industry publications was misleading.
FNC boasted that it was the "No. 1 network for political coverage," in the ad, noting that "6.8 million viewers watched Fox News Channel's election election night coverage."
But the ad failed to note that the 6.8 million figure was a cumulative rating of homes pulled in by both FNC and the over-the-air Fox network.
In fine print, the ad noted that the source material for the ad came from October ratings for several shows on FNC that don't compete head-to-head with programs on MSNBC and CNN.
"The ad was misleading," Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus said, adding that FNC failed to get Nielsen's approval to use its ratings in the ad-a practice he claimed was standard policy.
It's not the first time a network has been accused of running a misleading ad.
In February 1999, Courtroom Television Network came under fire for running ads touting its position as the No. 1 network among women 18 to 49. In truth, VH1 and Lifetime Television were ranked ahead of Court TV in that demo.
At the time, Court TV blamed the ad on a mistake with its engraver.
Loftus said Nielsen told FNC to stop running the ad, but FNC vice president of marketing Jason Klarman defended the ads and said the network wouldn't stop running them.
"Everything is sourced properly, and the ad stands on its own," he said.