Will TV ever find election perfection?

Nets refrain from early predictions

NEW YORK — After the blunders of 2000 and ’04, TV news made an election-projection correction Tuesday.

The networks refrained from early predictions, based on a few precincts, that proved to be clumsy and sometimes outrageous in years past.

But using a new system on Tuesday, the networks by 8 p.m. EST, were projecting results of some major Senate races, including Bob Casey’s defeat of Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania; Sherrod Brown’s win over Mike DeWine in Ohio and Sheldon Whitehouse’s victory over Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island.

In West Coast races, the networks waited a safe period after the polls closed at 8 p.m. PST before projecting a winner in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bid for reelection as governor of California.

As Tuesday night wore on it became clear that while Democrats were making gains, it would be hours before anyone would hazard the call of the night: whether the House or Senate would change hands. At a few minutes before 11 p.m. EST, NBC and ABC declared that Democrats would take the House.

“The challenge is to be quick with the calls,” said Fox News anchor Brit Hume. “You don’t want to be wrong, but you also don’t want to be last.”

With 60 tight races and the House and Senate hanging in the balance, there was one clear winner even early in the evening: In terms of coverage, cable triumphed over broadcast TV by a landslide.

Cablers, including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, had extensive coverage throughout the day and evening. In contrast, the broadcast nets retained their regular programming in the evening — this is, after all, sweeps period. CBS and NBC didn’t go on the air with meaningful poll data until 10 p.m. ABC decided Tuesday afternoon to get a jump on its rivals, leading directly from “Dancing With the Stars” into election coverage at 9:30 p.m., preempting “Help Me Help You.”

Of course, all election results had to compete with the real news story of the day: Britney Spears filed for divorce from Kevin Federline, which quickly became the top story on CNN.com. (All three cablers handled the news with a text crawl.)

This year marked the introduction of a system for releasing exit-poll results, designed to help prevent some of the blown calls in the last two presidential elections.

In a typical midterm, no more than a dozen races are really up for grabs, with the rest held safely by incumbents. This year, 40- 60 of 435 Congressional races were expected to be close, while as many as 10 of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs might change hands — partly due to public disenchantment over the war in Iraq.

Network execs dug in for a long evening, as early returns supported pre-election polls, indicating that Democrats were making gains in the House and Senate, though some races, like the Virginia senate race between Republican George Allen and Democrat Jim Webb, were too close to call.

Though many TV pundits had depicted this election as a real test of new anchors Katie Couric (on CBS) and Charles Gibson (ABC), the broadcasters’ evening newscasts suffered from a lack of concrete information on the east coast because they agreed not to report exit poll data on any race until the first polls closed at 7 p.m.

On CBS’ “Evening News,” Bob Schieffer reported only that it appeared Democrats were making gains and that turnout was high.

“We thought this may be a bad night for Republicans, but it’s turning into their worst nightmare,” he said, when the net resumed coverage at 10 p.m.

With the new anchors, ratings will be watched closely to see who polled best in the Nielsen standings.

Exit poll results collected by the National Election Pool were kept in a “quarantine room” in Gotham until 5 p.m., when the first release set off some mad scrambling at the networks to interpret the data.

Early exit polls looked very favorable toward Democrats in a number of Senate races, but the networks appeared to keep a lid on details leaking to the Drudge Report and blogs, a problem in the past.

While the nets couldn’t report data coming out of the states before the polls had closed, they did report that national issues appeared to have trumped local ones, leading pundits to predict that Iraq was a factor.

Networks were preparing to not have a final answer on some close Senate races before Wednesday’s morning shows.

Network coverage also paid close attention any kind of irregularity with the vote, including equipment snafus, long lines, or intimidation tactics.

MSNBC had an early scoop Tuesday, when it reported that the Virginia attorney general had asked the FBI to investigate an intimidating phone message warning Democrats they could be arrested if they vote.

All three broadcast nets had planned to do one-hour specials at 10 p.m. before ABC expanded its package, with the Alphabet web continuing coverage on “Nightline” and NBC on sister cabler, MSNBC.

ABC News prexy David Westin lobbied for the extra half-hour in primetime, which allowed Gibson’s coverage to lead directly out of “Dancing.”

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