Rupert Murdoch’s cable news channel said on Monday that it would revamp its daytime lineup starting next week, the week of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s inauguration, adding another hour of right-wing opinion as a lead-in to its prime-time stars Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity.The changes, beginning Monday, come as Fox News has experienced an unusual ratings dip that began after Election Day. Pro-Trump viewers balked at the network’s early call of Arizona in favor of Mr. Biden, and its subsequent recognition of Mr. Biden as the rightful victor further alienated supporters of President Trump, who …
His president reeling, his cable network at a crossroads, Tucker Carlson began his show on Thursday night asking a question that has echoed for weeks among anchors and producers at Fox News: “What is life going to be like for us on Jan. 21?”“Who has got your concerns top of mind? Who wakes up in the middle of the night worried about your family?” Mr. Carlson asked his flock, acknowledging that Mr. Trump would be gone in two weeks “and we cannot change it.”“The rest of us — and this is the key — will still be here,” he continued. “We’ …
He concluded by saying that those who showed no understanding of the concerns of the people who stormed the Capitol were foolish. “We got to this sad, chaotic day for a reason,” he said. “It is not your fault. It is their fault.”Right-wing personalities, who have helped fuel a movement built on misinformation and conspiracy theories, were reluctant to blame Mr. Trump for the violent actions of his supporters. On Newsmax, a conservative network that caters to Trump partisans — and whose most popular host, Greg Kelly, has insisted without basis that Mr. Trump can still win the election — commentators …
Juan Williams, a veteran Fox News personality who co-hosts the popular afternoon talk show “The Five,” tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday and is isolating himself, two people who were briefed on his condition said.Mr. Williams taped a live episode of “The Five” on Wednesday afternoon at Fox News’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, appearing on the set with several of his co-hosts, including the popular conservative commentators Jesse Watters and Greg Gutfeld. The hosts, like guests on some other cable talk shows during the pandemic, sat about seven feet apart. Mr. Williams left for vacation on Nov. 18 and …
In 2004, Hillary Clinton was in the Senate and Christopher Ruddy had some making up to do. He was, back then, best known as “the Inspector Clouseau” of the Vince Foster case — a New York Post reporter who had popularized the baseless theory that Mrs. Clinton’s friend, who committed suicide in 1993, had been murdered.But it now seemed possible that Mrs. Clinton might run for president, and Mr. Ruddy laid it on pretty thick. Mrs. Clinton was doing “a remarkably and surprising good job for NY as Senator,” he wrote to a mutual friend, former Mayor Ed Koch of New …
Flanked by aides in the Oval Office on Wednesday, President Trump dialed up a friend in the news media with a message: Keep up the good work.
“He said that it’s just incredible, the ratings you’re getting, and everyone’s talking about it,” recalled Christopher Ruddy, the owner of Newsmax, a niche conservative cable network that has yet to declare a winner in the 2020 presidential election.
Based in Boca Raton, Fla., the network features lo-fi production values and off-brand personalities like Sean Spicer and Diamond and Silk. Even finding it can be a chore: It appears on Channel 1115 in some major markets. But since Election Day, Newsmax has become a growing power in a conservative media sphere that has been scrambled by President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory and Mr. Trump’s refusal to concede.
Hundreds of thousands of new viewers have tuned into Newsmax programs that embrace the president’s debunked claims of voter fraud and insist that Mr. Trump can keep the White House. Until recently, the network’s top shows attracted a paltry 58,000 viewers. On Thursday night, the network drew its biggest audience ever, notching 1.1 million viewers at 7 p.m.
The out-of-nowhere rise has come as Fox News — the No. 1 network in TV news and long the destination of choice for many Trump partisans — has experienced a rare dip in dominance. Ratings for the Rupert Murdoch-owned network have dropped since election night, when its early projection that Mr. Biden had won Arizona infuriated Mr. Trump and his allies.
“The great @FoxNews daytime ratings CRASH will only get worse!” the president tweeted on Friday.
“CRASH” is overstating things: Fox News remains the most-watched cable news network in prime-time, averaging about 3.5 million viewers the week after the election. But the shift underscores a volatility among conservative audiences as Mr. Trump denies the reality of his defeat.
While Fox News is home to Trump cheerleaders like Sean Hannity, it also runs a decision desk and a daytime news operation that have declared Mr. Biden the president-elect. That is something many Trump fans do not want to hear, and Newsmax, which frequently reminds viewers it has not projected a winner, is rushing to provide an alternative.
“This whole idea of a president-elect, it is a media fabrication,” Greg Kelly, the 7 p.m. Newsmax host, told viewers last week. “This is not done. This thing could turn.” On Thursday, Mr. Kelly recorded his best numbers yet, pulling 1.1 million viewers for his hour.
Mr. Kelly, a former Fox News correspondent and a son of the former New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, said in an interview that his belief in Mr. Trump’s chances is genuine. “I really believe he’s going to prevail,” he said. “It’s a sense I have. Can I articulate perfectly why I thought he was going to win? No. But I’ll say the media has been wrong about him so many times.”
In fact, Mr. Biden won a decisive victory. Newsmax’s founder, Mr. Ruddy, contends that he is merely staying open-minded. “My view is that it’s an uphill battle for the president to change the vote, but he should be given the right to have a recount,” he said in an interview.
Newsmax is an unusual tribune for baseless accusations of voter fraud.
Mr. Ruddy is a longtime confidant of Mr. Trump and a member of his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach. But he calls himself a “Reagan conservative,” belongs to no political party and is a friend of Bill Clinton — despite having built his career in part as a New York Post reporter who cast doubt on the investigation into the death of a Clinton aide, Vincent Foster. Mr. Ruddy later contributed large sums to the Clinton Foundation and has a photograph of himself with the former president on his wall.
The 12th of 14 children, Mr. Ruddy grew up on Long Island and attended the London School of Economics before founding Newsmax in 1998 as a conservative website. The TV network followed in 2014, originally positioned as a centrist alternative to Fox News.
These days, Newsmax is a cozy clubhouse for Trump allies who speak emphatically about a purported second term and have taken shots at Fox News. Mr. Kelly expressed his contempt on his Thursday episode after playing a clip of a Fox News White House correspondent, Kristin Fisher, calling claims by the Trump legal team “light on facts.”
“The nerve they have, the arrogance,” Mr. Kelly said.
Newsmax says it is available in more than 70 million households, but on many cable systems it is listed alongside obscure channels like Newsy, Cheddar and United Nations TV. (Newsmax is still more prominent than One America News, another network that Mr. Trump has promoted.) Mr. Kelly recently thanked viewers for their “deliberate effort” in finding the network.
Its Manhattan studio is bare-bones — Mr. Ruddy called his cable operation “fledgling” and suggested it did not yet turn a profit — and its visuals are more public access than prime-time, lacking the splashy graphics of better-financed rivals. Some of its guests have been shunned by other networks, like Mark Halperin, a political journalist accused of sexual misconduct. (Mr. Kelly was the subject of a sexual assault claim in 2012; prosecutors declined to file charges.)
Then, there are the technical snafus. Wednesday’s episode of “Greg Kelly Reports” opened with a blank screen. After 12 seconds, the host appeared, midsentence in a monologue.
None of this has stopped Mr. Kelly from now drawing an audience about four times larger than CNBC’s Shepard Smith, a former Fox News anchor whose heavily promoted new program airs against it at 7 p.m.
Fox News, which benefited enormously from Mr. Trump’s rise, easily beats Newsmax in overall viewership. But since the network called the race for Mr. Biden, Trump supporters have chanted “Fox News sucks!” at demonstrations in Arizona and Washington, and its ratings have fallen well below pre-election levels.
Much of the drop has come during daytime hours, when its news anchors acknowledge Mr. Biden’s victory. But several Fox News opinion shows have seen a dip, too: Earlier this month, for the first time in 19 years, “Fox & Friends” drew a smaller weekly audience than MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
The loss of viewers has set off alarm bells inside Fox News, said several people with ties to the network who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid straining relationships. A new slogan promoting its pro-Trump opinion hosts — “Standing Up For What’s Right” — is now in heavy rotation.
“There’s a ton of discontent with Fox News in conservative circles,” said Nicole Hemmer, a Columbia University scholar who studies right-wing media.
The tensions have spilled into Fox News programming. On “The Five,” Geraldo Rivera attacked a pro-Trump colleague, Jesse Watters, for endorsing baseless claims about a stolen election. In prime time, Tucker Carlson cast doubt on the claims of Sidney Powell, a Trump lawyer, saying she had failed to produce evidence of election fraud. But in the next hour, Mr. Hannity invited another Trump lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to share his baseless claims with viewers.
Fox News declined to comment. But the network remains a ratings goliath: This summer, its prime-time audience was not merely the largest on cable, but the largest across all of television. And many in the TV industry expect the network to thrive once Mr. Biden takes office, capitalizing on the same conservative “resistance” viewership that fueled its success during the Obama years.
Even if Newsmax is more willing to indulge the outlandish prospect that Mr. Trump can serve a second term, Mr. Ruddy said that Newsmax would not become, in his words, “Trumpmax.”
“I don’t see him becoming a partner in the company,” he said, adding that he doubted that Mr. Trump “would want to tether himself to one news organization.” A Trump-hosted talk show, he added, would be “terrific,” but he has not made a formal approach.
“He’s confident he has a good shot at winning, and I think he’s focused on that,” Mr. Ruddy said. “I wouldn’t want him to lose his focus.”
At 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Americans all over the country began flicking on their TVs.
Moments after CNN and most of the major television networks declared that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had defeated President Trump in the presidential election, viewership surged across the three major cable news networks and the Big Three broadcast networks, according to Nielsen Media Research.
On CNN, viewership jumped 36 percent at 11:30, six minutes after the network became the first to project the Biden win. The MSNBC audience jumped 29 percent at 11:30. (NBC News had made its call at 11:25.) On Fox News, which made the call at 11:40, there was a 38 percent jump. The broadcast networks broke into “special report” mode and also saw huge spikes, according to Nielsen.
In all, more than 21 million viewers across the six networks took in the news that Mr. Biden would be the 46th president, an unusually high total for a weekend morning.
CNN had, by far, the most viewers of any network, averaging around seven million between noon and 2 p.m. Eastern time. MSNBC, the home network for many liberal viewers during the Trump years, had an average of roughly 4.5 million. Fox News, which usually has a commanding lead in viewership, had about three million.
Fox News viewers also began to tune out a little more quickly than viewers of the other cable networks, not long after being greeted to gleaming graphics that Mr. Biden was now president-elect. Viewers started to leave Fox News around noon, about 20 minutes after the network made its call, according to data from Nielsen.
By 3 p.m., as cable viewers began to tire of the roundtable discussions about a Biden presidency, CNN had lost 24 percent of its noon audience and MSNBC 23 percent. But Fox News had shed 45 percent of its audience, to about 1.8 million viewers from about 3.4 million at noon.
The gap between Fox News and other networks was even more pronounced Saturday night. More than 35 million watched Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s prime-time speeches, according to Nielsen. CNN commanded the largest audience, with 13.6 million, and MSNBC had the second-highest total, 8.5 million. CBS led the broadcast networks with 5.6 million.
But Fox News had the smallest viewership of any network that carried the speech: Only three million watched.
No television executive anticipated that this trend would last longer than a day or two. Fox News has hit record ratings marks throughout the year. It scored the highest viewership in prime time on election night of any network.
And indeed, by Monday, it appeared that order had been restored. Fox News won in prime time as its hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — who continued to discuss the Trump campaign’s baseless claims about voter fraud and other alleged election irregularities — averaged 3.8 million viewers, a million better than MSNBC and 1.3 million better than CNN.
The tension mounted for days — and then broke, all at once.
CNN went first, calling the presidential election at 11:24 a.m. Eastern. It was followed in quick succession by NBC, CBS, ABC and The Associated Press. Fox News confirmed the outcome at 11:40 a.m., underscoring what its anchor Chris Wallace later called “the power of what we are seeing right now.”
“Here we have on Fox the headline, the chyron at the bottom of the screen, ‘Joe Biden Elected 46th President of the United States,’” Mr. Wallace told his viewers. “On Fox.”
The projection that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had beaten President Trump came after days of slow-burning suspense on the cable news networks and broadcast channels. As millions of anxious viewers watched, the anchors and pundits filled hours of airtime by tracking the vote counts in battleground states. All the while, President Trump fumed and filed legal challenges.
Some on-air personalities began to lose patience with the slow pace. On ABC on Friday night, Nate Silver, the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight, was asked if he thought the race was over, and he replied, simply, “At this point, yeah.”
The anchor, George Stephanopoulos, and ABC’s supersized panel burst into laughter, with one panelist exclaiming, “Why are we still here then?”
Some viewers may have begun wondering the same, despite pre-election pledges by news outlets that they would be extra careful in tabulating results. But resolution came shortly before lunchtime on Saturday, courtesy of Wolf Blitzer on CNN.
“After four long tense days, we’ve reached a historic moment in this election,” Mr. Blitzer announced. “CNN projects Joseph R. Biden is elected the 46th president of the United States, winning the White House and denying President Trump a second term.”
It was a projection in Pennsylvania that tipped the networks’ models to a surefire Biden victory, as a batch of a few thousand ballots from Philadelphia trickled in, heavily skewed in Mr. Biden’s favor. “It is a cathartic moment for millions and millions of Americans,” said the CNN correspondent Abby Phillip.
Catharsis of a different sort came for the dozens of television producers, correspondents and anchors who had been overseeing a virtually 24-hour broadcast since Tuesday night, with some political analysts pulling overnight shifts in the event of a decisive development.
Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s highest-rated anchor, had been the co-anchor of the network’s broadcasts all week until she had to go into isolation in what she called her “Covid quarantine cove” on Friday after a close contact tested positive for the virus.
On Saturday, Ms. Maddow appeared onscreen via Skype, explaining to viewers that she was cleaning her bedroom when she heard about Mr. Trump’s loss. (She said she was cleaning out the three-hole punch that she had used to make her research binder for election night and “Dustbusting up the little holes that fell out.”)
“I’m not sure this is the way I imagined I would learn that Donald Trump was a one-term president,” Ms. Maddow said. “But I’ll take it!”
Until Saturday, Fox News had appeared closest to calling the race for Mr. Biden because of its early call for the Democrat in Arizona, an election night projection that prompted criticism from Mr. Trump, and some rival data journalists, for possibly jumping the gun.
In the end, Fox News was the final TV network to project a Biden win. The anchor Neil Cavuto was holding down the 11 a.m. shift as other networks began to make the call; he informed viewers of those projections but said Fox News was not yet prepared to weigh in.
By 11:40 a.m., the network’s lead anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum had arrived on the set. “The Fox News decision desk can now project that former Vice President Joe Biden will win Pennsylvania and Nevada, putting him over the 270 electoral votes he needs to become the 46th president of the United States,” Mr. Baier said.
Mr. Wallace told Fox News viewers that Mr. Trump “is going to end up with more votes than anybody in history — except for Joe Biden this year,” adding, “He is going to be a big player. He is not going to go away and be quiet.”
Still, Mr. Wallace seemed unimpressed with the president’s baseless talk of a fraudulent election and his legal challenges. “I think it’s going to become increasingly untenable,” he said, noting that Mr. Trump would need to find evidence of “industrial-strength election fraud and we have seen none of that so far.” He noted that Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, had begun to talk of a Biden presidency and predicted that his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate would follow Mr. Graham’s lead.
Donna Brazile, a Fox News contributor who was formerly the interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, wiped away tears as she reflected on the significance of Senator Kamala Harris becoming the first woman of color to be elected vice president.
“Been a long time coming, to be the last to get voting rights, to be those who waited and waited for our turn; it’s been a long time coming,” she said, after noting that she had been thinking about her grandmother, who did not have the right to vote. “This is not about asking anyone to leave the room. Just scoot over and let women also share in the leadership of this country.”
On CNN, the anchor Anderson Cooper asked the pundit Van Jones for his reaction. Mr. Jones, tearing up behind his eyeglasses, took a moment before saying, “Well, it’s easier to be a parent this morning. It’s easier to be a dad. It’s easier to tell your kids that character matters.”
The nail-biting week had exhausted anchors and audiences alike. On Friday, Jake Tapper of CNN acknowledged “frustration” among viewers, but evoked memories of the 2000 election, when networks had to reverse projections in Florida. “No one wants to go through that again,” he said, urging patience. “Everyone in the media wants to get it right.”
Shortly after Saturday’s projection, the major networks showed scenes of revelers celebrating Mr. Biden’s victory in American cities, as well as groups of Trump supporters in places like Harrisburg, Pa., who were waving Trump flags and carrying signs that said, “Stop the Steal,” a reference to the president’s unfounded claims that the election was fraudulent.
Mr. Trump, at that moment, was absent from the airwaves. He was off playing golf at a course in Virginia that bears his name.
Edmund Lee and Katie Robertson contributed reporting.
President Trump and Fox News have a complicated relationship. Election Day did not help.
The cable news channel that kick-started Donald J. Trump’s political career was suddenly in the position of signaling its potential end. The network’s early call of Arizona on Tuesday night for Joseph R. Biden Jr. infuriated Mr. Trump and his aides, who reached out publicly and behind the scenes to Fox News executives about the call.
The network held firm — even as two of its biggest stars, Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro, attended Mr. Trump’s defiant early-morning speech in the East Room of the White House.
The election-night split screen underscored the fine line that Fox News’s anchors and opinion hosts have walked in the past 24 hours. By Wednesday night, Fox News was the closest of any major network to calling the presidential race for Mr. Biden — not the outcome that many fans of its pro-Trump programming may have wanted.
Fox News was also the only major cable network to carry a news conference on Wednesday held by the president’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was making baseless claims of election fraud. But the channel promptly cut away to announce a major development: It projected a win in Michigan for Mr. Biden, placing him at the doorstep of the presidency, according to Fox’s projections.
And shortly after Bret Baier, the network’s chief political anchor, emphasized to viewers on Wednesday that Mr. Trump’s threatened litigation could throw the race into doubt — even if Mr. Biden was projected to win 270 electoral votes — Fox News’s politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, threw cold water on some of the Trump campaign’s baseless claims.
“Lawsuits, schmawsuits,” Mr. Stirewalt said. “We haven’t seen any evidence yet that there’s anything wrong.”
Fox News has long occupied an unusual position in the Trump orbit. The network is home to some of the president’s most vociferous defenders, including Sean Hannity, Ms. Ingraham, and the hosts of “Fox & Friends.” But Mr. Trump frequently takes potshots at its news division and polling operation.
“Fox has changed a lot,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday morning on “Fox & Friends.” “Somebody said, ‘What’s the biggest difference between this and four years ago?’ I say, ‘Fox.’”
The president is a vociferous viewer and constant critic, praising preferred hosts by first name at rallies (“Jeanine!” “Tucker!”) and dialing up the network’s chief executive, Suzanne Scott, to complain about coverage. He has hired (and fired) former network personnel; belittled its hosts while also agreeing to interviews; and relied on Mr. Hannity’s political advice while bashing news anchors like Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith, who left the network for CNBC.
In the wake of Tuesday’s Arizona call, a mixed view of Fox News had spread to some of Mr. Trump’s allies. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican who rose to fame on the strength of Fox News guest appearances, bashed the network for what he deemed an insufficiently swift projection of a Trump win in his home state.
“For Fox to be so resistant to calling Florida and yet jumping the gun on Arizona, I just thought was inexplicable,” Mr. DeSantis told reporters in Tallahassee on Wednesday. “I don’t think that that was done without some type of motive, whether it’s ratings, whether it’s something else.”
In fact, members of Fox News’s decision desk said repeatedly that the network’s polling team — which reports to the news division and is sequestered on election night — was merely adhering to a rigorous analysis. The network’s data team, led by Arnon Mishkin, relies on a proprietary model that draws on data from The Associated Press.
Still, some Fox News personalities speculated whether Arizona would remain in Mr. Biden’s column. “There may be some tightening there,” Mr. Baier said on Wednesday, summarizing arguments from the Trump campaign, while Bill Hemmer used an interactive map to conjure ways Mr. Trump could eke out a win in Pennsylvania.
But when Mr. Hemmer asked if the network might consider reversing the Arizona call, Mr. Stirewalt laughed. “Not that I see,” he said.
Mr. Wallace also offered a grim prognosis for the president. “It’s real simple math now,” he said, shortly after Fox News projected that Mr. Biden would win Wisconsin. Pointing to Mr. Biden’s advantages in Nevada and Michigan, he said: “If he just holds on to his lead in those two states, he’s the 46th president of the United States.” (Fox News would call Michigan just over an hour later.)
Mr. Hannity did not appear on Fox News on election night, but he returned on Wednesday evening, echoing some of the president’s talking points about the integrity of the vote count. He stopped short, though, of Mr. Trump’s baseless claim of outright “fraud.”
“Do you trust what happened in this election?” Mr. Hannity asked viewers. “Do you believe these election results are accurate? Do you believe this was a free and fair election? I have a lot of questions.”
Mr. Hannity had few specific arguments, tossing in a reference to “dead people,” and at times his monologue sounded like a regular episode of his program, not a postelection special. His lead-in, Tucker Carlson, also spoke ominously about the vote results while avoiding an outright embrace of Mr. Trump’s baseless claims about winning states that had yet to be called.
“Many Americans will never again accept the results of a presidential election,” Mr. Carlson said at one point.
Fox News set a record for the highest Election Day prime-time viewership totals in cable news history, according to Nielsen. The network drew 14.1 million viewers between 8 and 11. Its next-closest competitor, CNN, drew nine million in the three hour block. Each of the three top broadcast networks carried less than half of Fox’s audience, with ABC, at 6.3 million viewers, leading that group.
This followed a delirious ratings run for Fox News in the weeks leading up to the election. In October, Fox News averaged 4.9 million viewers in prime time, up 85 percent from a year earlier and far higher than MSNBC, which finished second with 2.7 million viewers.
“Tucker Carlson Tonight” earned an average of 5.4 million viewers in October, the highest monthly average for any show in the history of cable news. And Fox News even scored higher viewership totals than any of the broadcast networks during the two presidential debates and the vice-presidential debate.
Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s elder son and the executive chairman of Fox News’s parent company, was asked on a Tuesday earnings call if a prospective Biden victory might rein in the channel’s ratings success. He pointed out that Fox News had dominated cable news rivals through “different administrations and different political cycles.”
Mr. Murdoch added: “We fully expect to be No. 1.”
Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.
Call it the Great Wait.
As the polls closed in key states on Tuesday, TV networks held off on projecting winners throughout much of their election night coverage, promising a prudent, go-slow approach to avoid the up-is-down shocks of 2016.
[Fox News made a big call on election night, buoying Biden and angering Trump.]
By midnight on the East Coast, anchors were telling viewers that it was now their turn to cool their heels: A clear outcome, they warned, could take days.
“If it were a tennis match, each side is holding serve,” the Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said. “I think the story of the night has really not been told yet.”
And on CNN, the map maestro John King likened the pending results in Pennsylvania — which was emerging as a tipping point — to a ballgame in the “second or third inning at best.”
With a vote count complicated by the coronavirus pandemic and enormous pressure bearing down on TV executives to dodge an egg-on-the-face moment, the major news networks had promised to be cautious.
They weren’t kidding.
No major projections in battleground states came during prime-time hours. The dam burst shortly after 11 when the Fox News decision desk called Florida, Texas and Ohio for President Trump and — in a projection that caught other news outlets off guard — Arizona for Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Unlike ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC, which share information on vote counts as members of the National Election Pool, Fox News relies on a proprietary data model that draws from The Associated Press to make its determinations on election nights. (Other networks continued to describe those battleground states as too close to call after the projections by Fox News.)
One clear assessment of what was shaping up to be an inconclusive evening came shortly before 11:30, courtesy of ABC’s lead anchor, George Stephanopoulos.
“It is looking increasingly clear that we are not going to know who the next president of the United States will be tonight,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “And we are just going to have to be patient as we go through this process in the coming hours, and perhaps in the coming days.”
Prudence in election coverage is preferable to jumping the gun. Still, as the night wore on, anchors seemed ready for answers. Fox News brought on its politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, several times to explain the reluctance of the network’s data team to project battleground winners. It turned into a good-natured grilling session.
“Our call will hold, we feel very confident,” Mr. Stirewalt said after his team’s early projection that Mr. Biden would take Virginia.
On MSNBC, Steve Kornacki frantically worked his interactive map to work out scenarios that would allow Mr. Biden to win the election without taking Pennsylvania.
“That is crazy,” said Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s highest-rated anchor, as she looked on. “I mean, I have done that math myself, and I know it’s true, but I can’t believe we’re talking about it as one of the things that might actually happen.”
Before the evening began, major media polls had shown Mr. Biden with a narrow lead in several key states, and some producers had game-planned how to handle a situation in which Mr. Trump, down in the count, tried to declare a premature victory.
Instead, the early results prompted conversations about why the polls had seemed to miss some of the night’s emerging trends.
On MSNBC, a destination for ardent critics of the president, the anchor Nicolle Wallace argued that her colleagues’ focus on North Carolina was wrong, just as the state appeared to be tilting toward Mr. Trump. “We shouldn’t pull our viewers into dramas that aren’t necessary,” Ms. Wallace said, calling the state a “sideshow.”
When Mr. Biden fell behind in Florida, Ms. Wallace said: “You can feel the hopes and the dreams of our viewers falling down, and you can hear liquor cabinets opening all across this great land.”
CNN’s coverage was dominated by updates from Mr. King, who zoomed in and out of counties in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio. The conclusions were murky. “Is it significant?” Mr. King asked, peering over results in Pasco County in Florida. “We don’t know.”
Four years on, TV networks still have scars from the 2016 race, when Mr. Trump’s victory shocked many journalists. His norm-busting presidency and its political fallout became the central focus of cable news, which watched audiences swell.
As Wednesday dawned, the future for the networks, and the country, remained hazy. “We are tonight putting together an enormous jigsaw puzzle, but we don’t have the box that has the picture on it,” the CBS News anchor John Dickerson said. “We’re going to be developing that picture as we look at these pieces.”
Tiffany Hsu, Edmund Lee and Katie Robertson contributed reporting.