Almost 50 years ago, a smash review from New York Times critic Jack Gould helped turn NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley into the first superstar news anchors and set the stage for the medium’s emerging dominance on the American political scene.
With NBC’s Tom Brokaw set to retire after this year’s election, broadcast’s celebrity-anchor era could be coming to a close. Some observers believe that cable’s news services may be on the verge of entering a similar era.
The broadcast networks have helped cable’s cause through a series of journalistic stumbles and the abandonment of consistent political-convention coverage. The cable news networks also benefit from near universal distribution and a growing cadre of loyal fans attached to cable news personalities just as an earlier generation revered Walter Cronkite.
But the speed and depth at which Cable News Network, Fox News Channel and MSNBC can reach that milestone could depend on their election-night performances and avoiding problems like the 2000 Florida exit polling fiasco that tarred the broadcast networks.
“When I was breaking in, it was an act of faith that it was election coverage that put you on the map,” says Sam Roberts, a broadcast journalism professor at the University of Miami and a 32-year veteran of CBS News. He believes cable networks are at the same juncture that broadcasters were at in 1956.
In 2004, the three major cable news channels drew an average of 6.7 million people in primetime during the Republican Convention. Observers wonder how many of those viewers will watch the broadcast networks next week.
“It will be interesting to see how many people leave the cable news networks,” says Richard Hanley, an assistant professor in the School of Communications at Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University.
Breaking the broadcasters’ hold on election nights will not be easy. They have a huge advantage in promotional muscle, history and strong affiliates who provide local results.
According to Nielsen Media Research, in 2000, of the 63 million people who watched primetime election coverage during any given minute, 46 million tuned into one of the Big Three, and 11 million to either CNN, Fox News Channel or MSNBC. (Another 4.3 million watched Fox’s broadcast network and 1.6 million PBS.)
Experts say it is particularly important that cable networks run a tight ship in order to continue to gain credibility with the public. In 2000, all the networks blew the Florida race by alternatively calling it prematurely for Al Gore and then for President Bush before issuing embarrassing early morning retractions. Including Brokaw’s famous on-air declaration, “We don’t just have egg on our face, we have omelette all over our suits.”
Roberts says, “In retrospect, a lot of the problems the broadcast networks had in terms of their credibility can stem from that night [in 2000].“
The cable networks — like the broadcasters — promise that accuracy, not speed, will guide their judgments on election night. “The basic thing is to use extreme caution in how we call races,” says Marty Ryan, executive producer of Fox News Channel’s political coverage. “What we tell our decision teams is, 'Don’t watch other networks.’ We will wait until they are ready.”
“I would expect not to be the first in calling most of the states,” says David Bohrman, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and election overseer.
Not everyone is convinced the networks will remain so patient.
“You know what it’s like in control rooms on election night,” says Charles Bierbauer, a former CNN reporter, now dean of the School of Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina. “One executive says, 'CBS is calling Pennsylvania; where’s ours?’ There’s enormous pressure to jump on the bandwagon.”
Following the 2000 election, the networks launched internal reviews that resulted in changes designed to spot errors in the exit-poll samples and raw data reports from key precincts.
Decision desks will look closer at polling data to ensure that it jibes with past results. Researchers have tried to devise more sophisticated models to track results that don’t fit with historical voting patterns.
The networks are confident that their exit polling problems are history in the wake of the formation of the National Elections Pool consortium. The NEP was formed to replace the Voter News Service after VNS’s 2002 meltdown. Run by Edison Media Research and veteran pollster Warren Mitofsky, NEP did fine during the primaries, but has not been tested in the heat of a close presidential race.
The networks insist NEP is the least of their worries come election night. “We’ve been really pleased with how the system has functioned throughout the process,” says Linda Mason, vice president of public affairs at CBS News, who works closely with NEP.
As a double-check, CNN will deploy a team of a dozen experts in statistics and analysis to pour over the exit-poll numbers, and viewers will get an education in the art of estimating winners. Other networks will take similar steps.
Fox News has commissioned telephone surveys in key battleground states to supplement the exit polls — not because the network has concerns about the consortium, but to dig deeper into results in the so-called “purple states,” Ryan says.
CNN will also make another significant change this year. The network largely outsourced its decision-desk calls to CBS during the 2000 election, but this time it’s flying solo.
Another headache for producers is the massive amount of voting irregularities, lawsuits and machine malfunctions that are expected to plague many states. Anchors will be tested explaining the nuances of provisional ballots, and correspondents will be covering what could be the most chaotic election night in many years.
“We will look back fondly at 2000 as a smooth election,” predicts Martin Kaplan, associate dean at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and a veteran journalist and speechwriter. With a close election expected, “small problems in various places can have very big consequences,” he says.
One of broadcast’s biggest edges is local news input from station affiliates as back-up. But CNN and Fox also have local stations to help them monitor breaking news.
At CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin will look out for legal challenges and issues that could trigger recounts. “We’ve established half a dozen 'go’ teams situated in key places around the country by noon or 1 p.m. on election day,” CNN’s Bohrman says.
If that doesn’t keep viewers from channel surfing, the news networks are all hoping they’ll stem any outward flow with flashy new graphics packages, tickers and screens that provide access to more vote-counting information than ever before.
“We’ve spent a lot of time refining what the election ticker will look like,” says Fox News’s Ryan. “You can see any important election [information] on the bottom of your screen the entire night.”
CNN has taken over the NASDAQ market broadcast center in New York’s Times Square, where its news team will riff off information available on 72 wall screens, flashing real-time results, exit-poll data and analysis of key states.
MSNBC, which also will have a new graphics package, is banking on the growing popularity of Hardball anchor Chris Matthews, as well as its access to NBC reporters. In September, his show reached an average of 538,000 viewers — a huge number for MSNBC. Matthews will report from a spot outside New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, by NBC News’s new “Democracy Plaza” exhibit. He’ll be chatting with “interesting people talking about what’s going on,” says Griffin.
What if the pundits — as usual — are wrong, and the race is wrapped up by 9:50 p.m.? Viewers can switch to Comedy Central’s Daily Show With Jon Stewart at 10 p.m., where Stewart will explain what really happened.