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TV Networks Learn to Do Without Exit Poll System

Media firms use their own data and election tallies as backup plans to Voter News Service.

November 07, 2002|Dana Calvo and Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writers

In the television networks' fierce quest to be over-prepared and competitive on election night, some discovered they can make do without Voter News Service, the consortium of broadcast and print news organizations that provides exit polling information from across the country.

VNS, which took the fall for the erroneous early projections during the 2000 election, set out last year to overhaul its hardware and method of analysis but warned many networks that Tuesday night could be touch and go because of the roll-out.

All of the members of the 12-year-old consortium -- Fox News Service, Associated Press, CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC -- came up with backup plans. CBS and NBC, for example, polled 2,600 people the weekend before the election and then used tabulated votes from both VNS and AP on election night. Fox News Service polled 900 voters Tuesday night in 10 key states with tightly fought races, including Texas, Minnesota and Colorado.

Not to be outdone, CNN executives built their own mini-version of VNS called "RealVote," which cost an estimated $1 million for more than 600 workers to fan out to sample precincts in 10 states and report back with actual vote tallies.

"We were capable of making calls without relying solely on VNS," CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson said Wednesday. "We had a safety net, and it worked."

Indeed, CNN was able to call the Florida governor's race for incumbent Jeb Bush at 8:20 p.m., well ahead of VNS and most other networks, based on "RealVote."

Inside the control room Tuesday, CNN executives had the data to make the call even earlier, at 8 p.m., but political director Tom Hannon sent it back through the computer for double-checking, amid nervous laughter about the need to get it right, given the problems with calling the state in 2000.

If VNS' election coverage was messy Tuesday for the "greater good" of the presidential election in 2004, the networks' day-after conclusions about how to plan for that race varied.

Bill Shine, executive producer at Fox, said simply: "Absolutely we'll have a backup," while CNN, CBS, NBC and ABC said they had to evaluate their options. ABC spokeswoman Cathie Levine said executives will be looking at their coverage and at VNS' problems and then will "ask some tough questions."

All five networks and AP pay a fee to belong to VNS, although they each have the option to leave the service. Shine is betting every network executive will conduct a VNS post-mortem.

"I'm sure head executives are asking, 'What do we next?' " said Shine. " 'Where do we go from here? Can we trust it? Will it work in the future?' "

In terms of style, the comparative lack of VNS-supplied analysis struck viewers differently. Some, like GOP pollster Anthony Fabrizio, thought he was getting only half the story.

"I felt like I was back in the 1960s, waiting for Univac to spit the stuff out," he said. "After the 2000 election, I think maybe they tried to fix something that may not have been broken. Florida was called wrong in 2000 for several reasons."

*

Calvo reported from Los Angeles and Jensen from Atlanta. Times staff writer Johanna Neuman contributed to this report.

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