TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT

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It's not often you'll hear news organizations brag about being the last to break a story, or the first to retract a news report.

But after all of the cable news channels and "Big Four" broadcast networks blew the presidential call last Tuesday, some executives found solace in getting it less wrong than the competition.

"You see the one network that backed off Florida first, and it took a half-hour or 45 minutes in some cases for the other networks to follow. That network was CNN," Larry Goodman, president of CNN sales and marketing, said last week.

The race between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore in Florida-which is expected to determine the next president of the United States-was the story last week. Official results in Florida might not be released until this Friday, and possible court challenges could tie up the race for weeks, so the finish line for the all-news marathon hasn't appeared on the horizon.

While the all-news networks posted big ratings gains, the blown calls cast a shadow on their performance, which CNN won on the cable side.

Within an eight-hour period beginning at about 8 p.m. on Tuesday, the networks called Florida for Gore; issued a retraction; called the state for Bush, declaring him president-elect; and finally, issued a final embarrassing retraction at 4 a.m. on Thursday, saying Florida was too close to call.

The gaffe may become an issue in Congress. On Thursday, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) said he plans to investigate the election coverage and the exit-polling system used by news organizations.

NBC and MSNBC were the first to call Florida for Gore, at 7:49 p.m. on Tuesday. "If it's wrong, we'll be the first ones to admit it," NBC's Tim Russert said at 9:37 p.m., shortly after chief Bush strategist Karl Rove chewed out NBC and the other networks, insisting that the race was too close to call.

NBC, whose election calls were reported simultaneously by MSNBC anchors, was the last network to retract the Florida call for Gore, at 10:16 p.m.

Primetime viewers that tuned to any news network between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. saw anchors paint a bleak picture for Bush.

"The Gore campaign has to be looking at the state of California like a prime sirloin about to be served to them," CNN's Jeff Greenfield said at 9:26 p.m., suggesting that a win in the biggest electoral state, together with Florida, could seal the presidency for Gore.

CNN, citing problems with data from Voter News Service, the exit-polling consortium backed by the networks and the Associated Press, was the first network to retract the Florida win for Gore at 9:54 p.m. Other networks quickly followed suit.

"It could be that the lights are going out for Gore," CBS anchor Dan Rather said at 10:05 p.m., after exit polls showed Bush winning other key states.

FOX GETS IT FIRST

Fox News Channel was the first network to declare Bush the winner of Florida and president-elect at 2:16 a.m., shortly before the other networks.

By about 4 a.m., all of the networks had retracted the Bush win, telling bleary-eyed viewers the race was too close to call. Anchors poked fun at their own multiple retractions, acknowledging they expected to take a lot of heat for the calls.

"We don't just have egg in our face. We have omelet all over our suits," said NBC anchor Tom Brokaw.

"I did not enjoy looking like a fool," CBS
Face The Nation

host Bob Schieffer told MSNBC's Don Imus Wednesday morning.

"I don't accept that this was bad data," he added, noting that he expressed his concerns to CBS News president Andrew Heyward.

Most of the networks blamed the blown calls on problems with data provided by VNS. Each received the same data from one source, but generally made separate calls based on interpretations from their own statisticians.

"It was a mistake, but it was a good-faith mistake based on bad information," said NBC News spokeswoman Alex Constantinople. It's too early to say how the network may rely on exit polling data in the future, she added.

NBC will await the results of its own review of the calls before making any decisions on future election-coverage strategy.

FNC is also conducting an internal review. "You don't like making mistakes. But on the other hand, it says something for us and the others, as well.that we said: 'Hey, we made a mistake here. We're fixing it,'" FNC executive producer Marty Ryan said.

Ryan, who predicted that the network's call in favor of Bush will eventually hold up, said he still believes the VNS system is useful. Last week's mistakes wouldn't stop the network from reporting on exit polls in future elections, he added.

But Bill O'Reilly, anchor of FNC's
The O'Reilly Factor
, said on Thursday that he believes Congress should pass a law that would ban networks from conducting exit polls at polling sites.

"I'm with you, Congressman," O'Reilly told Tauzin, chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, during an interview on
The O'Reilly Factor
. "But I think you should get tougher."

CNN PLANS REVIEW

In a statement, CNN said it launched "an immediate review of all procedures involved and has already begun consultation with the other news organizations."

Election coverage was a marathon roller-coaster ride for all of the networks, and it showed on anchors' faces by the end of the night. By 5 a.m., Bob Novak's comb-over had unraveled on CNN, and the 5 o'clock shadow on ABC News analyst George Stephanapolous was clearly 12 hours old (though he reappeared on
Good Morning America

two hours later with a clean shave).

All of the network teams pulled all-nighters. But 69-year-old CBS anchor Rather outlasted everyone, broadcasting continuously until 6:55 a.m before passing the baton to Bryant Gumbel and the CBS morning team.

MSNBC, CNN and FNC anchor teams handed off coverage to replacements during the 5 a.m. hour.

CNN won the all-news-network ratings war Tuesday in both the primetime and total-day categories, while MSNBC upset FNC to secure second place.

CNN posted a 4.7 Nielsen Media Research rating and 3.7 million households in primetime, followed by MSNBC (3.1 rating, 1.9 million households) and FNC (2.76 rating, 1.5 million households). For the total-day period (6 a.m. to 6 a.m.), CNN pulled a 2.32 rating and 1.8 million households. MSNBC placed second (1.5 rating and 915,000 households), and FNC placed third (1.39 rating and 773,000 households).

In October, both CNN and FNC pulled a 0.9 rating in primetime and a 0.4 total-day rating, though CNN is more widely distributed. MSNBC trailed with a 0.4 in primetime and a 0.3 in total day.

The FNC feed was simulcast on the Fox broadcast network, which affected its ratings, an FNC spokeswoman noted. FNC and Fox combined to draw 7.1 million viewers in primetime.

Goodman, CNN's president of ad sales and marketing, said several advertisers began calling the network on Wednesday, requesting advertising units for the big story. One movie company looking to market a new release bought a $150,000 package. That client said: "Get me on the air, and keep me on the air for as long as this thing stays hot," Goodman said.

Most of the network's election inventory was sold during the 1999 upfront season in a package that included coverage of the presidential primaries, debates, election night and its
Inside Politics

program, Goodman said. CNN doubled the ad revenue it generated in 1996 from the same package, Goodman said, noting that this year's package also included advertising on CNN.com, which led the news Web sites in traffic last week.

SPECIAL AD PACKAGES

The network was selling advertisers "breaking news" packages last week. Rather than estimate a unit cost or a rating for the packages, CNN pitches a cost-per-thousand rate for the coverage and withdraws money from the advertiser's budget after ratings are generated, he explained. (For example, if CNN offers a 10 CPM, and draws 2 million homes, each 30-second spot would cost $20,000).

With the election drama still playing out, cable ratings continued to grow on Wednesday.

CNN won primetime Wednesday with a 2.8 rating and 2.2 million households. FNC and MSNBC both pulled 1.7 ratings. But MSNBC, which has larger distribution, drew 1.1 million households, while FNC drew 951,000.

From 6 a.m. Wednesday to 3 a.m. Thursday, CNN averaged a 2.4 rating and 1.9 million households. MSNBC pulled a 1.4 rating and 837,000 households for the same period, followed by FNC with a 1.2 rating and 689,000 households.

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