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Making Hay While Sunshine State Stays in Election Limbo

November 14, 2000|MARY McNAMARA and BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

While no one can claim the ultimate victory yet in the presidential contest, the postelection confusion has produced any number of other unexpected winners. At the top of the heap: the hostelry of Tallahassee, Fla.

Starting last Wednesday, reporters, photographers, television producers and camera crews have descended on Florida's capital, claiming every available hotel and motel room. Any other time, this would be a most welcome development, but this week, it's added another logistical problem to a city already in a numerical ferment.

On Saturday, the University of Florida Gators are scheduled to play the Florida State University Seminoles in the state's most important annual football game, and hordes of Floridians will be descending on Tallahassee to watch. The question is: Will they fit?

According to Ron Yarbrough, general manager of the Radisson Hotel Tallahassee, the profusion of press and other interested parties are occupying every single room in town. Which will come as unhappy news to the football fans who booked those very same rooms as long as a year ago.

"We're in a real pickle," Yarbrough says. "Something's got to give."

On Monday, Yarbrough and other hoteliers sent letters to their guests informing them that they will need to vacate their rooms by Thursday, whatever the state of Florida's presidential election.

But according to Tom Flanigan, a spokesman for Visit Florida, those guests may have the legal right to stay where they are. "According to Florida law, you can't evict someone who is in the room," says Flanigan. "Like a landlord can't just throw a tenant out."

Concern over the upcoming football weekend aside, local businesses are enjoying a boom. The press, says Yarbrough, is keeping room service pretty busy, and almost every local business is reporting an increase in sales. "Gas stations, the mall, this place is just buzzing," he says.

If nothing else comes out of this extraordinary process, Flanigan adds, "we feel real good that people now know Tallahassee is the state capital, not Miami."

Floridians are not the only people who have found an economic silver lining to the otherwise tempestuous recount process. From network execs to pizza delivery personnel, from social scientists to satirists, many Americans are benefiting from the strangest presidential election in history.

Not surprisingly, CNN reported record-breaking viewership on election night--reaching more than 2.5 million viewers during the day and almost 6 million at night. But it was CNN's Web site, at http://www.cnn.com, that blew out all previous records. According to Media Metrix, an Internet ratings service, more than 3.5 million users logged on to the site, a 62% increase from its previous record on Oct. 12, when terrorists attacked a U.S. Navy destroyer docked in Yemen. In subsequent days, Nielsen/NetRatings reported that CNN.com continued to attract record numbers of users, garnering the highest "stickiness" levels--the amount of time users had the site up--among all news destinations.

"Obviously we're very pleased," says Scott Woelfel, president and editor in chief of CNN.com, adding that virtually no one complained about not being able to log on. "We had a 99% success rate, which is our second goal after accurate and timely reporting."

Like many news Web sites, CNN.com streamlined its home page to focus almost exclusively on the election. Woelfel's staff ended up pulling long shifts that turned into all-nighters.

"There's an 8-foot-high stack of pizza boxes in our conference room," he says with a laugh. "When I saw that, I was deeply impressed."

As is Domino's Pizza, which, according to spokeswoman Holly Ryan, experienced a 4% increase on election night.

"Big news events, sporting events, when people are glued to their sets, are typically our big nights," Ryan says.

But the Internet and TV are not the only media benefiting from the election that won't end. For radio talk show hosts, this election is manna from heaven.

""[It's] a feast for radio talk show hosts," says attorney Gloria Allred, who cohosts a talk show on KABC-AM (790) with Mark Taylor.

"I'm just thrilled. I just love it. It has sucked the oxygen out of other issues." Listeners, she says, are "thirsty for answers" about things such as misleading ballots and vote recounts and how the electoral college functions. "Having said that," adds Allred, a Gore supporter, "I would have preferred it never to have happened in our history."

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a writer and political observer who hosts a Tuesday night talk show on KPFK-FM (90.7), sees this election and its results as a boon for radio talkers. "You have a lot of anger out there. We'll be talking about this one probably for four years. This has got a long shelf life."

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