TV ratings for election up 19% from 2002

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NEW YORK -- Interest in the results of Tuesday's midterm elections resulted in a sharp upswing in the TV ratings compared with the 2002 midterms.

Nielsen Media Research said Wednesday that 31.4 million viewers watched the primetime election coverage on the three broadcast networks and three cable channels. That's up 19% compared with the 26.3 million viewers who watched the 2002 midterm election coverage on the same six channels, Nielsen said.

ABC -- with a "Dancing With the Stars" lead-in and a 90-minute telecast (compared with the other two broadcasters' 60 minutes) -- prevailed with an average 9.7 million viewers compared with NBC's 7 million and CBS' 6.3 million. On cable, Fox and CNN split the victories, with Fox edging CNN in viewership while CNN won in the adults 25-54 news demographic.

MSNBC was well behind for primetime but notched triple-digit gains compared with 2002. Its share of the audience was 25%, up 2 percentage points from 2002.

Fox News Channel had 3.1 million viewers compared with CNN's 2.97 million and MSNBC's 1.9 million from 8-11 p.m. EST, Nielsen Media Research said. CNN had 1.3 million viewers in the demo compared with Fox's 1.2 million and MSNBC's 893,000.

Despite a few eyebrows raised from exit polls, there were no major malfunctions on Election Night.

While several networks (led by NBC) projected shortly before 11 p.m. EST that the Democrats would win the House, four Senate races remained in play after midnight. Tennessee was called for the GOP shortly afterward, with Missouri coming in the early morning hours followed by Montana in the early afternoon. Only Virginia remains too close to call.

"Things went well," said Dan Merkle, who ran ABC News' decision desk. "We stuck with our mandate, which was to get it right. We were cautious, we didn't make any mistakes."

That was the feeling throughout most of the industry Wednesday, though the networks noticed early that the exit polls seemed to be skewed toward the Democrats. Fox News Channel announced early on that it wouldn't use the exit polls. The other networks used them to varying degrees but, as promised, didn't make calls based on them.

All the networks are part of a consortium called National Election Pool, which coordinates the Edison/Mitofsky exit polling nationwide. To prevent problems in calling the races such as what happened in 2002 (when the consortium's predecessor had major data problems) and the leak in 2004 of early, inaccurate data, there was a quarantine until 5 p.m. on the data.

"There are always issues like that (with exit polls)," CNN's David Bohrman said. "Our people in the quarantine and everybody's people in the quarantine knew that some of the data was off a bit in some areas. But one of the great advantages of that quarantine room was that our guys were able to examine it and look at the data."

Bohrman said Wednesday that the exit poll's value was in trying to gauge what was on the minds of voters.

"I think we were able to deal with the exit poll information in a grown-up way," Bohrman said. "The exit poll information is not the results of the election. We know how to weight it and consider it in the election. We knew there were some bits that were off in some states, but we took them into account."

ABC's Merkle said he thought the quarantine didn't cause any undue problems and was happy with the way things went generally. But he said ABC and the other members of the consortium would meet at some point to discuss the 2006 process and whether anything could or should be changed.

"It's something that we'll need to take a look at and investigate," Merkle said.
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