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Networks await a key vote -- by the viewers

News divisions at NBC, ABC and CBS hope to woo new watchers as their anchors take the election night spotlight.

November 06, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Political operatives won't be the only ones nervously awaiting the numbers from Tuesday's elections.

For the three broadcast television news divisions, the 2006 midterms mark a potential watershed -- the first major news story to test viewer alliances since Katie Couric jumped to CBS this fall and joined the ranks of evening anchors.

Although Couric, ABC's Charles Gibson and NBC's Brian Williams have all participated in election coverage before, Tuesday marks the debut of all three as lead network election night anchors. That fact -- along with the possibility that this year's midterms could trigger a dramatic shift in political balance in Congress -- has spiked anticipation in each newsroom.

"I live on this stuff," Williams said. "The presidential is the big enchilada, but as midterms go, I think this will be among the more interesting of my lifetime."

This week's election also gives the anchors a chance to practice their political fluency before diving into the 2008 presidential campaign coverage.

"It's my first time in this position, so I just think it's a great way to get my feet wet," Couric said.

The networks are not planning the kind of wall-to-wall coverage they devote to presidential races, but each news division will have a live hour at 10 p.m. on both coasts to cover the results, along with short updates throughout the night. It's nowhere close to the amount of coverage that will dominate cable news channels like Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, but network executives hope it will be enough to woo new viewers.

"Having Charlie on throughout the evening is a real opportunity for us to attract those people who are watching and hopefully hold onto them," said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's "World News." "There's no one better at covering an election, in my own humble opinion, than Charlie and the rest of the ABC News team."

Political chops will come in handy on a night in which dozens of competitive House and Senate seats are up for grabs. The anchors' ability to speak knowledgeably about the races and their potential impact on the political balance in Congress will be carefully watched, as will their handling of the reams of data cascading in throughout the night.

"It's fair to judge us by these big events," said Williams, who anchored election night coverage on MSNBC, NBC's sister cable station, before succeeding Tom Brokaw as network anchor. "I've always said that it's not the most difficult thing in the world to deliver a newscast once it's compiled and put in front of you. But it's not so easy to have a live event like an election night and distill it and put it into perspective."

His mandate to the NBC staff: "Keep it very loose and simple and just let what happens happen."

"People say, 'How are you preparing?' " Williams added. "If you haven't been all your life, you shouldn't be in this job. You should raise your hand and say, 'I'm a fraud, I'm sorry.' "

Gibson, whose previous election night experience consisted largely of reporting on congressional races when he covered Capitol Hill, said that after being appointed "World News" anchor earlier this year, "one of the first things that went through my head was ... 'I'm going to get to do election night!' If you're a political junkie, what's cooler than that?

"There's a majesty to a day when 80 to 85 million people go out and express their collective will," he said. "And it takes on greater importance when there are 150,000 kids overseas in a war zone and another 20,000 in a second war zone. You don't want to get gooey about it, but it takes on a greater sense of moment, I guess. And that's what gives you chills."

The ABC anchor, who will remain on the air into the early-morning hours for the live West Coast edition of "Nightline," spent the last week making up color-coded index cards with notations about the most competitive 57 House races, a project that required the purchase of a new color printer for the newsroom.

"There's butterflies, because I've never done it in this guise before," Gibson said. "I'm keyed up."

For her part, Couric -- who helped anchor election night coverage for NBC in 2000 -- said she's not a "complete political junkie, but I'd say my level of interest is definitely high."

The CBS anchor said she aims to focus her network's coverage on the broad thematic implications of Tuesday's elections, including the impact of the war in Iraq and effect on the 2008 presidential campaign.

"I think most people who are political junkies are going to be hooked up to a cable IV," she said. "But I think what we can offer is a real synopsis of what's happened during the day, what the trends are, what they mean and what the ramifications are.

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