NEW YORK – Before 2000, the focus of television coverage of Election Night (search) was pretty simple: Count votes as fast as you can and explain why people voted the way they did.
Two trends in this year's plans show the residual impact of hanging chads (search) and blown calls. Networks are intent on following potential voter irregularities and laying bare their own decision-making processes as results flood in.
ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, CNN, FOX News Channel and MSNBC will all devote prime time to election results Tuesday night. Smaller networks with specialized audiences, like BET and MTV, have unprecedented coverage because of the intense interest in the presidential race.
Chip Reid will be stationed at the "Making Your Vote Count" desk at NBC News. ABC's Jake Tapper will deliver "Ballot Watch" reports. Mika Brzezinski at CBS, Major Garrett at FOX News Channel and Jeffrey Toobin at CNN all have the same assignments: Comb the country for reports of potential fraud or disenfranchised voters.
"We all got a civics lesson in 2000 so what we feel we need is some good intelligence with secretaries of state in every battleground state," said Paul Mason, ABC News senior vice president.
ABC's planning the days before the election resembles The Weather Channel's right before a hurricane makes landfall: Keep checking for where news is likely to strike before putting correspondents on airplanes.
NBC is helping to finance a national voter help line. Civic responsibility is one motive; so is the hope it might tip the network off to trouble spots before its rivals.
"After the election, the story will be about how broken the election system is," NBC's Tom Brokaw said.
Networks also want to rebuild public confidence in their performance after the 2000 disaster. You'll recall them declaring Al Gore the winner in Florida, rescinding it, giving Florida and the presidency to George Bush, then having to wait several weeks before a court fight settled the outcome.
ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX News Channel and The Associated Press collaborated to construct a new exit polling system from scratch. The AP will also be the sole source for a nationwide vote tabulation.
After the primary season and several test runs, the participants expressed cautious optimism — certainly more optimism than they did in 2002 — that things will work on Election Night.
"I think everyone rightfully learned a lot of lessons four years ago," said David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief. "You also learned that you don't have 100 percent confidence in anything."
Networks all promise caution in declaring winners state by state, adopting "we'd rather be right than first" as a new mantra. They also expect to more thoroughly explain why they're calling or hedging on a state's results.
On CBS, for example, Brzezinski be stationed at her network's decision desk and explain to viewers what her colleagues are doing.
Dan Rather has covered every presidential election since 1964 and will be CBS News' anchor again. Bob Schieffer is his analyst-sidekick. Watch for whether Rather holds back on his favorite cornpone phrases because of the cloud over CBS due to the National Guard controversy.
Peter Jennings will anchor ABC News' coverage, with George Stephanopoulos as analyst.
NBC has constructed an elaborate outdoor studio at New York's Rockefeller Center for Brokaw and analyst Tim Russert. It's likely the last big event presided over by Brokaw, who is stepping down as NBC "Nightly News" anchor on Dec. 1 and breaking up the Rather-Jennings-Brokaw triumvirate after two decades.
Fox broadcasting will have coverage anchored by Shepard Smith, while FOX News Channel will have a separate feed with Brit Hume as host.
CNN has rented out Nasdaq's headquarters in New York for a visually striking set, where Wolf Blitzer will be in charge. MSNBC's Chris Matthews will have his own desk near Brokaw's at Rockefeller Center.
PBS coverage will start at 10 p.m. EST, with Jim Lehrer as anchor. PBS will rely on the AP's projections for presidential and Senate races.
Focusing on its target youthful audience, MTV will cover results on "Total Request Live" and in a special later Tuesday. Throughout the day, it will run testimonials from viewers on why they decided to vote.
"If you are in the age range of 18 to 30 and you want to see what the Election Day (search) process has been like for your peers, this is the place to turn to," said Dave Sirulnick, executive vice president of MTV News.
MTV has never devoted such resources to an election, he said. It's a reflection of the interest it has sensed among viewers: a 61 percent increase in views to its Web pages devoted to the election.
BET is also running an Election Night results special. Throughout the day, the network will run on-screen notices and public service announcements filmed by celebrities designed to get black viewers to the polls.
Telemundo has its own studio in NBC's Rockefeller Center complex, where Pedro Sevcec will anchor the Spanish-language coverage.
For all the networks, that's millions of dollars worth of on-air talent, newsgathering, eye-catching studios and graphics — all for democracy's biggest night.
"This is just a stage setting," Brokaw said. "The important thing that we have to do Election Night is tell the story of what America has been through the past year."