With millions of Americans tuning in Tuesday to see who's elected president, anxious TV executives were depending on new systems to avoid the spectacular failure of their blown calls four years ago.
Five TV news organizations and The Associated Press have formed the National Elections Pool (search) to conduct exit polls of voters, while the AP was supplying actual vote counts from across the nation.
The networks pledged to use that information with caution after twice prematurely declaring a winner in Florida in 2000 — the second time awarding the presidency to George W. Bush weeks before it was settled.
As voters made their choices, cable news networks ran seemingly endless tape loops of President Bush (search) voting in Texas and John Kerry (search) in Massachussetts, mixing in pictures of voters standing in line at polling places.
CNN kept a "countdown clock" on its screen, marking the minutes until the first polls were to close.
A "FOX News Alert" on FOX News Channel showed pictures of tires allegedly slashed on cars that were to be used for a GOP get-out-the-vote effort in Wisconsin.
ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX and the AP disbanded their previous exit poll and vote-counting consortium, Voter News Service (search), after the 2000 fiasco and another failure in 2002. Two veteran polling outfits — Mitofsky International (search) and Edison Media Research (search) — collaborated on exit polls this year.
The AP said it has beefed up its vote-counting operation now that it will be the sole source of these results for the news organizations.
The National Elections Pool says it has made accommodations for the surge in early voting. While exit polls were taken in only three states that offered early voting in 2000, NEP has polled early voters in 13 states this year, including Florida, said Michael Mokrzycki, the AP's director of polling.
The networks all said that their typical competition to declare results first will be cast aside.
"We think we know where the traps might be and we're going to be especially careful," said CBS News spokeswoman Linda Mason.
In response to what happened in 2000, NBC quarantined its experts making calls on winners and losers in a room without TV sets so they couldn't see their rivals, while FOX had four executives on its decision desk and promised not to call a state unless all four agreed.
CBS said it wouldn't declare a winner or loser in any state, cautiously saying it would only "estimate" a winner.