Making the call: Inside Fox News

Channel more cautious this Election Night

NEW YORK -- When Fox News Channel made its call of the election for Barack Obama at exactly 11 p.m. ET, it was the culmination of a series of events that began when the exit polls were released a little less than six hours earlier.

While exit polling favored John Kerry exactly four years ago Tuesday and turned out to be dead wrong, Fox News Channel's decision desk and executives said this time, things were different.

"The first results of the exit polls, which were available to us after 5, gave a really strong indication for Obama," said John Moody, executive vp of news editorial at Fox News Channel. It was Moody's final call, seated at the network's decison desk, that awarded states to the candidates. Shortly after 10:30 p.m., it was clear that Obama would reach 270 and the White House.

Moody talked to anchor Brit Hume before the coverage began, and he said Hume understood what it meant. But with California closing in 20 minutes, word filtered from the decision desk to the control room and anchor desk at 10:40 p.m. that Fox would make the call at the top of the hour.

At 10:46 p.m., political director and executive producer Marty Ryan, sitting in the second row of the new HD control room, told staffers, "We're getting close to making the presidential call." It is likely the earliest presidential call that Fox News has made in its 12-year history.

A few minutes before 11 p.m., senior vp Joel Cheatwood explained that the Golden State was golden for Obama and the Democrats.

"California in and of itself will put him over the top," Cheatwood said.

At 11 p.m. exactly, Hume announced Fox News was making the call that Obama was the president-elect. It was a near photo finish for all the news channels and broadcast networks, that seemed to make the determination at the same time. The control room quickly turned to the live video and sound of the tens of thousands at Chicago's Grant Park, where Obama was to give his acceptance speech.

But even with the election decided, the 11 p.m. hour was anything but a quiet time in the control room. Except for a brief break with small bags of peanut M&Ms passed out, things went fast and furious. A staffer at 11:03 p.m. tells Ryan to be prepared for McCain and maybe Palin to come out on the stage in Phoenix "at any moment." But it wasn't to be for air until they knew more. Soon after, they get a five-minute warning, just about the same time that the wires announce that McCain had called Obama to congratulate him.

"One-minute warning for McCain," a staffer calls out.

"Do you want to see Palin," says another, pointing to the Alaska governor walking on stage with her husband, Todd.

"Yes, yes," Ryan says.

After McCain speaks, the decision desk is heard from again. Some other states are still out, but Obama has won Colorado and Nevada.

"Superfluous now, but perhaps important to Barack Obama," intones anchor Hume. The total is now 311 Obama, 155 McCain, and destined to go higher. Other calls are made as Obama prepares to address the nation at midnight. And others, like Missouri and North Carolina, were still out at 1 a.m.

Hours earlier, it was the exit polls that pointed to an Obama win, which had been borne out by the polls. Different this time around was the exit polling, which was tweaked after 2004. Also contributing were proof of consistent heavy turnout and heavy turnout among African Americans.

"It was pretty much what we expected to be," Moody said.

There were few misfires across the networks. Earlier in the night, the McCain campaign pushed back against the Pennsylvania call. But the nets held fast. Fox News had a few tense moments beginning at 9:02 p.m., when a graphic came up giving Ohio to Obama. Hume called it but then immediately asked the control room, "We didn't call Ohio? I apologize. We're not calling Ohio. The checkmark was misplaced."

But that was all forgotten a few minutes later, when Fox News called Ohio for Obama for real. Moody later said that the checkmark was for a moment misplaced, that it should have been on Michigan and not the Buckeye State.

For pretty much the entire night, things went according to the script that many had foreseen long before the nets went on the air. Hume, working his last election as Fox News campaign anchor after 12 years at the network, was at times in heavy anchor mode and, sometimes, much lighter.

Hume sat on the left-hand side of the studio, mostly accompanied by a stone-faced panel of analysts. To Hume's right, at a smaller desk sat Chris Wallace and Karl Rove. Wallace often played foil to Hume, on camera and off, with the soon-to-retire anchor occasionally tweaking Wallace.

Hume constantly showed amazement at the technology that was all over the new Fox News studio.

"We've got all kinds of stuff on that screen," Hume said early in the night. "We can do anything we want with it. Folks, you ought to watch it."

And later: "I love to watch you do that," Hume told Bill Hemmer, stationed all night at the "Bill Board" touch screen. "If I did that, I'd set the place on fire."

Jay Wallace, vp of news editorial at Fox News, said that the network had choreographed about 10 different plays -- camera angles and shots -- in the high-tech studio and had practiced them over and over in the days leading up to Election Night. That would get them through the early stages of the coverage but they would stay flexible for other story lines to develop.

"It's like a concert to start," Wallace said. And the crew in the new HD control room was about twice as many as had worked there for Fox News four years ago, when there wasn't much technology to run.

The first calls came at 7 p.m., when Fox News gave McCain the eight votes in Kentucky and Obama the three in Vermont. For a while, many of the states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia were too close to call. But eventually, methodically, the decision desk gave each to Obama, inching him closer to 270. In between, there were updates and calls for other less-contested states and the results for Senate and House races. In one, where Elizabeth Dole lost her Senate seat to Kay Hagan, Wallace noted that Dole had recently criticized her challenger for attending a meeting at the home of a member of a Godless Americans PAC.

"I must say I was not aware of that particular PAC," Chris Wallace said.

Rove came back into the studio around 9:10 pm, holding a smallish pink box. Something to get through a long night?

Rove smiled, opened the box: Fox News cookies, individually wrapped. He pointed to Wallace.

"He told me to bring snacks," Rove said to me. "I brought snacks."