Just when the networks thought they had this election bit wrapped up into a neat prime-time package, along come the voters to foul up their plans.
For the last decade or so, those who nostalgically recalled the days when bleary-eyed late nights were required to find out who won or lost have decried the impersonal, exit-poll-laden and computer-analysis-driven coverage that announced winners moments after the polls had closed.
Well, you might have noticed a few of those political junkies around the water cooler today. They were the bleary-eyed ones.
ABC and NBC didn't even come on until 10 o'clock. Clearly, the idea was to announce the results of everything but the California races, give a bit of perspective and analysis, and hand you over to the local stations for the 11 o'clock news.
CBS, by pure luck of its scheduling draw -- it has a movie on Tuesday night so it had a two-hour block to pre-empt -- came on an hour earlier. But besides giving Dan Rather more time to come up with hokey political sayings, the plan was clearly pretty much the same.
This year, the three networks -- and CNN -- had even pooled their exit polling, making the coverage all the more homogenous accross the board.
But the electorate failed to cooperate, leaving races hanging by a thread all over the country as the network anchors and their entourages scrambled not to deliver their pontifications, but just to get you the returns.
Continuing the trend of the past several elections, ABC started out with the most impressive performance of the big three, Peter Jennings a solid center, Jeff Greenfield, George Will and Hal Bruno particularly pointed in their analysis. If David Brinkley had managed to say something other than the electorate was ignoring the savings and loan crisis, it would have been a stellar performance.
But consider what happened later in the evening when Ted Koppel brought "Nightline" onto the air. If you've stayed up, you want returns, but he's got all these satellite-linked talking heads analyzing what happened in an election that isn't over yet. The election wasn't fitting into the producer's plans.
NBC's Tom Brokaw displayed his usual political depth, but his network's coverage was marred by spending inordinate amounts time acting like the broadcast of record, tediously going through the results of races that weren't close and were never expected to be close.
The way the election shaped up, it was left for Rather's edge-of-the-seat approach to pull ahead at the finish. Usually Rather's intensity seems out of place in no-contests, but it was appropriate last night. Rather told you from the start he meant business, theatrically dressed in his shirt sleeves and suspenders. Though he, too, spent too much time on meaningless races, he did deliver the goods.
Indeed, Rather was too busy to come up with many zingers this time, though he did say that many thought upset Kansas gubernatorial winner Nancy Finney was as out of place in that race "as a fortune cookie in an Italian restaurant." What is the frequency, Kenneth?
To his credit, Rather was the only of the major anchors to acknowledge on-air that CBS wasn't making the election calls, that they were coming from this exit-poll consortium. And, to its credit, CBS was the last of the big three to go off the air, at 1 a.m., and even then the governors' races in Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska and, of course, California, hadn't been called.
CBS' problem was its supporting cast which it always insists on populating with its stars. What is professional interviewer Mike Wallace doing talking about congressional races?
An election junkie just interested in national races would have no reason for leaving CNN. Its coverage started first and, though its graphics might not be as fancy, delivered the numbers and the calls, as well as a taste of the headquarters and the speeches.
Steady Bernard Shaw provides a firm anchor and you're not going to get a better analyst than Ken Bode who was always at his side. Even its gang of contentious political pundits -- Pat Buchanan, Mark Shields, Robert Novak and Michael Kinsley -- kept their barbs under wraps to come through with good insights.
Locally, Channel 11 (WBAL), buoyed by being the only station to have exit poll results and a seven minute window provided by CBS at 8 p.m., took a big early lead among the three stations as Ted Venetoulis provided his usual excellent performance.
But some gaffes later in the evening -- clumsily losing a satellite feed from Roy Dyson's headquarters, Venetoulis' failure to come back and discuss the disparity between the exit poll numbers and the actual returns -- culminated by the decision to go to "Who's the Boss?" at midnight (at least that was a half hour behind schedule) .
Channel 2 (WMAR) was solid, if unexceptional, giving a straightforward accounting of the election. Its problem was with the incongruous presence of Baltimore Sun cartoonist Kevin Kallagher -- why interrupt the election returns to discuss how a political cartoonist goes about his job? -- and with its choice of former Gov. Marvin Mandel as an analyst.
Ignoring his previous legal problems, Mandel is too closely tied -- to Gov. William Donald Schaefer to serve in this job on an election night.
Channel 13 (WJZ) continued its abysmal election performance. Unlike many times in the past, it had no major gaffes. Still the city's alleged news leader did the bare minimum, no exit polls, no analysis, just the results, some reports from various headquarters.