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TV dotes on votes

Tight race boon to nets, but Web looms

WASHINGTON — Green rooms will be taken over by pushy political pundits today as networks and cablers launch their election day assault, filling up hours and hours of programming with everything but a diagram of the White House kitchen sink.

CNN, like every news web, has lined up a virtual who’s who of pontificators to speculate about the tight presidential contest between GOP candidate George W. Bush and Democratic hopeful Al Gore.

On the veteran news cabler alone, there’s an astronaut — albeit former Sen. John Glenn — and country singer Travis Tritt. There’s a segment on election fraud and, later, a visit from a Popandpolitics.com exec.

TV webs are hoping that viewers will tune in to watch election results in record high numbers. Thanks to the excruciatingly close presidential race, they might just be right.

“It will be watched to a greater degree than other years when the races perhaps weren’t as close,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, VP of broadcast research at TN Media. “We’ll probably see people hang in there later into the evening since the clear winners won’t be established early on.”

TV newscasters’ hands will be tied throughout much of the day, as they have pledged that they won’t report on exit poll results for a state until polls close in that state. That means a red-eye night for anchors.

Web questions

Dan Rather and Peter Jennings will probably be chomping at the mike if news sites on the Internet go ahead and release exit poll information.

This is in fact the first presidential election of the full-blown Internet age, and there’s no telling what impact the Web will have.

For the past week, Internet columnist Matt Drudge has announced in banner headlines on his site, the Drudge Report, that he won’t agree to keep mum about exit polls.

The National Review Online and Slate, two prominent news sites, have both acquiesced in recent days and agreed not to spread word of exit polls, after doing so during presidential primaries earlier this year.

If the Web overtakes television in terms of pivotal election coverage, it could open another chapter in the bitter debate over whether TV should wait until polls are closed before declaring a likely winner.

Without a doubt, the A-list anchors will rule the roost at the nets, with Jennings out front at ABC, Rather heading up CBS’ coverage and Tom Brokaw anchoring NBC’s coverage. Rather has participated in CBS election night coverage since 1964.

Amid the underlying chaos, an oh-my-god moment came Monday afternoon when CNN interviewed — live — irreverent political talkshow host Bill Maher.

The CNN correspondent remarked that actress Bo Derek was at a rally over the weekend for Bush.

Maher, whose show “Politically Incorrect” airs after midnight, said Derek was a longtime Republican, but that her “nipples are Libertarian.”

The blushing correspondent reminded Maher that this wasn’t latenight TV, joking that he and his afternoon CNN segment might get canceled.

In a down-to-the-wire plug for Gore, outspoken talkshow host Rosie O’Donnell Monday aired on her show part of a speech Barbra Streisand gave at an August fundraiser. Streisand’s pro-Gore comments were in large part cut from her appearance on ABC’s “20/20” on Friday.

To prepare the more than 200 TV stations that air “Rosie,” show’s distrib Warner Bros. sent out an announcement Friday giving stations notice of the planned seg.

“Since Barbra Streisand’s political comments are in an episode airing the day before the election, we felt we had an obligation to notify our stations of the political material that was in the show and that we had checked with our counsel to ensure there were no legal equal time issues,” said Warner Bros. spokesman Scott Rowe.

Los Angeles’ KNBC and WNBC in New York aired the show in full on Monday, Rowe said. The studio had no reports of any stations preempting or cutting the show.

Coverage bows at 7 a.m.

CNN was set to begin its election coverage at 7 this morning, featuring election-themed editions of weekday shows before shifting into live coverage from its Atlanta headquarters at 5 p.m. Brian Williams will anchor at MSNBC starting at 5 p.m., with Chris Matthews adding commentary; Brit Hume and Paula Zahn will be front and center at Fox News.

In 1996, election-night coverage across ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN rated a 25.8 with a 42 share, which means that 42% of the households watching TV on election night were tuned to election coverage — the lowest percentage since Nielsen started keeping figures. By contrast, in 1960, when there were only three national networks, 90% of TV sets in use were tuned to electioncasts.

But, according to Koerner, this year’s coverage is likely to achieve above a 50 share. Some news net sources are estimating that they won’t know the results of the race until the wee hours of Wednesday.

Fox simulcast

In the four years since the last election, MSNBC and Fox News Channel have given CNN some competition on the cable side.

And this year, for the first time, Fox will carry election-night coverage, simulcasting Fox News’ cable coverage. On election night in 1996, Fox aired the kids’ movie “Beethoven,” attracting about 13 million viewers. This year, it will be lucky if it attracts half that number.

For viewers who are looking for something entirely different, UPN will air the movie “Bad Boys,” while the WB will broadcast original episodes of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.”

One thing is certain: It’s going to be a long night.

(Melissa Grego in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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