The Night Of Bad Calls

The party at NBC was just getting good. It was election night, and a group of executives were holding a bash in the "Saturday Night Live" studio. Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric, the network's parent company, decided it would be fun to lead guests on a tour of the "boiler room," the newsroom where statisticians were crunching numbers for the election broadcast. By the time they got there, the news crew was in a state of anxiety. Hours earlier NBC had called Florida for Al Gore. Now, the crunchers realized, their numbers were wrong. Tom Brokaw announced that the crucial state was back in play. The staff sweated as Welch hovered with a beer in his hand. He was still hovering six hours later when, after prematurely declaring George W. Bush president-elect, Brokaw finally declared: "We don't just have egg on our face--we have an omelet."

Turns out all the networks got their eggs from the same basket: the Voter News Service, a media pool organization that generates exit polls and election results. The company is jointly owned by a coalition of news companies to cut millions in data-collection costs. But on election night something went wrong, kicking off a stretch of nearly simultaneous botched calls. Now executives are scrambling to figure out where the system broke down. "We made a mistake of good faith based on bad information," says NBC spokesman Alex Constantinople. "We're doing everything we can to make sure it never happens again."

The trouble started just before prime time. Between 7:50 and 8:10 p.m. EST all the major TV news outlets awarded Florida to Gore. Within the hour Bush strategist Karl Rove was on air, disputing the numbers. Then VNS called network liaisons to say that there was a problem with their results. Their methods had worked in past elections. But the statistical models used were possibly flawed, says a network executive, giving too much weight to Democratic votes in some districts. The pollsters based their predictions on past voting behavior, not taking demographic shifts into account. Furthermore, the models were designed to catch swings in thousands of votes, not mere hundreds. Between 9:55 and 10:20 the networks placed Florida back in the undecided category.

Sometime after midnight VNS delivered another update. With 98 to 99 percent of the precincts counted, the service's report indicated, Bush led in the state by some 29,000 votes. Shortly after 2 a.m. the networks declared Bush the winner. But Web reports quickly challenged the call, claiming the gap was much narrower and dwindling fast.

And soon the network anchors flipped again, declaring Florida and the entire election "too close to call." "We're all gnashing our teeth and whipping ourselves," says one network executive. "The system wasn't designed to handle statistical anomalies." Here's a safe projection for 2004: the networks will be trying hard to cut the margin of error.