NEW YORK – "It seemed like a three-way game of chicken," said ABC News analyst George Stephanopoulos (search). "Kerry didn't want to concede. Bush didn't want to claim victory until Kerry conceded, and he didn't want to claim victory until the networks gave it to him." And none of them budged, even though Stephanopoulos said several people in the Bush campaign were e-mailing him about it.
The backdrop, of course, was the networks' disastrous declarations in 2000 that Bush had won Florida and the presidency. They retracted those decisions before the court battle that decided the election, and news executives were called before Congress to explain the blunder.
The networks promised this year to be more careful and less mindful of competitive pressures — the mantra was, "we'd rather be right than first." For the most part, they moved with deliberation and explained what they were doing.
At 12:41 a.m. EST Wednesday, FOX News Channel projected Bush the winner in the key battleground of Ohio. NBC followed with the same estimate at 1 a.m. By their counts, that gave Bush 269 electoral votes, or one shy of the 270 needed for victory.
The race, NBC's Tom Brokaw declared, "is all but over."
"In 2000, if we had looked up and saw that NBC and FOX had called Ohio, it would have been `why can't we? what's going on?'" said CBS News President Andrew Heyward. "And there was none of that."
Through the night, ABC, CBS and CNN all kept Ohio in the undecided column. CNN went so far as to color Ohio green in its big red state/blue state electoral map.
It's not that network rivals were unaware of each other. CNN's Judy Woodruff explained at length why Ohio hadn't been decided, while her colleague Jeff Greenfield conceded that, "if we hadn't gone through what we went through in 2000, we probably would have called Ohio for Bush." It was 1:20 a.m.
On ABC, Stephanopoulos said on air that it seemed "mathematically almost impossible by any reasonable scenario" that Kerry could win Ohio.
CBS's decision desk nearly called Ohio for Bush, but held back because of uncertainty about how many provisional ballots had been cast, Heyward said.
"It was all based on the data," he said. "It was not based on the politics of it."
Shortly before 4 a.m., ABC, CBS and CNN declared that Bush had won Nevada and its five electoral votes. NBC and FOX kept Nevada in their undecided column; if they had made the same decision, that would have meant awarding the presidency to Bush.
FOX News declared Nevada for Bush at 11:27 a.m. — or 23 minutes after The Associated Press moved a bulletin saying Kerry had conceded.
(For the record, The AP — which in 2000 did not call Florida for Bush even though the networks had — did not declare Ohio settled until after Kerry's concession.)
"I think it was reasonable," Stephanopoulos said. "At that point, why become the story? Given 2000, the most important thing, I believe, was to get it right and get out of the way — don't inject yourself into the middle of the process in that way. And I think that drove a lot of the decisions."
With Bush's electoral count stuck on 269 through nearly four hours of live coverage, Brokaw acknowledged on the air that it was frustrating to viewers. "It's frustrating to us as well," he said.
Although NBC News wasn't second-guessing its decision to call Ohio for Bush, he said, "we are not the arbiters of this. We do not declare who is the president."
"We are waiting for what the Kerry campaign is going to do, because we owe it to them to hear them out," he said.
But isn't it intellectually dishonest to spend the evening projecting winners in various states and then fail to pull the trigger on the biggest decision of all?
Heyward said no.
For television, the story of election night was the success of all the safeguards put in place to prevent a repeat of 2000, he said.
"It's a great example of a problem and a solution that worked," he said. "We were forthright. We were not timid. We were appropriately conservative and I think the way the story played out absolutely validated every decision we made."
Joseph Angotti, a Northwestern University professor who produced NBC's election night coverage in the 1980s before turning to academia, said he would have done the same thing.
"I would have said, `Why? What does it do for us to declare the winner of the election before it became clear?'" he said.
When Angotti was at NBC, a squadron of public relations staffers would monitor television sets on election night, keeping track of when each network called races. If one network was appreciably faster than its rivals, its PR reps would brag about it to reporters. Being the first to call the election of a new president was the biggest prize of all.
"It was an unbearable and unnecessary kind of pressure, I think, because the public didn't care," Angotti said. "The networks did, but the public didn't."
This year, such boasting was almost nonexistent.
"I think the networks have grown up a lot since four years ago," he said