NEW YORK — In one of television’s most counterintuitive twists, none of the broadcast news divisions or cable news nets proclaimed George W. Bush the victor until sometime after 11 a.m. Wednesday. That’s when Democratic challenger John Kerry ended a tense standoff and conceded the fraught race in a phone call to Bush.
Apparently the president was irked by all the “too close to call” pronouncements.
So reported ABC’s White House correspondent Terry Moran around 5 a.m. ET.
“Well, that’s interesting, Terry, because the president has always made a point that we are the filter. He should find a way of going around us,” ABC News anchor Peter Jennings responded to Moran.
“He is very capable of going down to the Ronald Reagan Building and saying what’s on his mind, isn’t he? It seems he wants the stamp of legitimacy from us this time declaring him the winner,” said Jennings, according to a preliminary transcript.
Lambasted by Republican lawmakers for jumping the gun on Election Night 2000, the nets erred on the side of caution this time, even when it became clear that Bush had locked up the Electoral College and the popular vote.
Bleary-eyed cable news net correspondents remained on duty throughout Tuesday night and Wednesday. On the broadcast side, Jennings, CBS News anchor Dan Rather and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw finally went off the air between 5 and 6 a.m., only to return Wednesday afternoon to anchor special reports on Kerry’s concession in Boston and Bush’s victory speech.
For all the interest in the fraught 2004 White House contest, it’s possible that fewer viewers watched election coverage than did in 2000, according to preliminary time-period numbers released by Nielsen Media Research. Roughly 59.8 million watched the four broadcast nets and three cable news nets Tuesday, compared to 61.8 million four years ago.
NBC took the lead, averaging 15.2 million viewers between 8 and 11 p.m. ET. ABC came in second, with 13.2 million viewers, while CBS averaged 9.5 million, according to Nielsen. Fox News Channel came in behind the Eye with 8 million viewers. CNN averaged 6.2 million and MSNBC 2.8 million. Fox Broadcasting, whose election coverage ran from 8-10 p.m. ET, averaged 4.7 million.
Final Nielsen numbers for the broadcast nets will be released today.
Nets said they kept their promise in not reporting on exit polls or projecting the winner of a state until such a call was thoroughly vetted. Some of the early exit polls indicated that Kerry was narrowly ahead in key battleground states, but the nets never directly reported this advantage and thus said the exit polls weren’t problematic.
Fox News exec VP of political coverage Marty Ryan said his decision desk deliberated for more than four hours before projecting Bush the winner in Ohio — the tipping state in the race, as Florida was in 2000.
One downside of the reformed election coverage on news nets: “I thought, in some cases, we were so deliberate, it made for slow television,” Ryan said.
Bush re-election operatives put pressure on the broadcast and cable nets to pronounce their man the victor early Wednesday after Fox News and then NBC News (and sister cable net MSNBC) projected that Bush would indeed take Ohio. That was around 1 a.m. ET.
Kerry’s people immediately issued a press release noting that not all the votes had been counted in Ohio, which in turn prompted NBC and Fox to reiterate why they believed the call was right. ABC, CBS and CNN continued to say Ohio was too close to call.
The game of chicken between the news nets continued, with NBC and Fox unwilling to go all the way and project Bush the winner of Nevada, which would have given him the electoral votes he needed. The other news nets did give Bush Nevada before the night was out.
NBC was “worried about Ohio. That’s why they didn’t give Bush Nevada,” said an exec from a competing net.
NBC and Fox News said Nevada, like New Mexico and Iowa, was simply too close to call.
“I’m sorry to hear that the White House was upset, but the only pressure we were putting on ourselves was to be right,” said CBS News senior VP of news coverage Marcy McGinnis.
“The whole point after 2000 was to be right and be confident in the results and not have the viewers in any way have to worry that we were going to have to pull back,” McGinnis said.