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Biden Election Call Boosts Cable TV Network Ratings

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.

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Wary TV Networks Refrained From Early Calls of Battleground States

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.

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.

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Networks Pledge Caution for an Election Night Like No Other

Batches of ballots that will be counted at different times, depending on the swing state. Twitter gadflies and foreign agents intent on sowing confusion. A president who has telegraphed for months that he may not accept results he deems unfavorable.

Television executives overseeing this year’s election night broadcasts are facing big challenges. And the world will be watching.

“Frankly, the well-being of the country depends on us being cautious, disciplined and unassailably correct,” said Noah Oppenheim, the NBC News president. “We are committed to getting this right.”

In interviews, the men and women in charge of network news coverage — the platform that tens of millions of Americans will turn to on Tuesday to make sense of a confusing vote count and learn the future of their country — made similar pledges.

Patience. Caution. And constant reassurance to viewers about the integrity of the results. “We have to be incredibly transparent all through the night with what we know and what we don’t know,” said George Stephanopoulos, who will anchor the proceedings for ABC News.

To accommodate the idiosyncrasies of this pandemic-era campaign, networks are planning tweaks to the way some election nights looked in the past.

Real-time results will be displayed in the context of the total expected vote, including the absentee and mail-in ballots that will account for a high proportion of it. The usual metric, “precincts reporting,” is tied to in-person votes on Election Day, which producers expect to be potentially misleading.

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The “decision desks,” the teams of data experts at news organizations who project results, say they are not competing over who calls a race first. “We’re preparing the audience that this might not be over in one night,” said Susan Zirinsky, the president of CBS News.

And combating misinformation — be it from online mischief-makers or falsehoods from the commander in chief — is a priority, particularly in educating Americans that any delays in declaring a victor stem from care, not chicanery.

“Just because a count may take longer does not mean that something is necessarily wrong,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “It may not even mean that it’s a close race. We have to constantly remind the viewer that patience will be needed and this may take some time in critical states, and that doesn’t mean anything is untoward.”

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Credit…Fox

That TV networks bear this burden is partly a symptom of the country’s broken information culture, in which partisan news sources and specious social media rumors can overwhelm careful journalism.

There is also open concern among Democrats that President Trump may seize on early returns and declare himself the victor, hoping that voters’ perceptions overwhelm reality.

“I don’t think we can censor the candidates,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “But we have to be vigilant about putting whatever comments are made in context, with everything we know about where the race stands, where the law stands, where the votes are.”

“I wouldn’t think he would call in, knowing that the squad is on that is on,” Mr. Wallace said. He added, “Whatever he were to say wouldn’t sway anything when it comes to what we’re counting.”

That was a reference to Fox News’s decision desk, which has a track record of independence and accuracy. Arnon Mishkin, the consultant who leads the operation, is known for holding his ground during an on-air confrontation in 2012 when the Republican strategist Karl Rove questioned his projection that Barack Obama would be re-elected. Mr. Mishkin, like vote counters at rival networks, will be sequestered from the anchor team on election night, an effort that news organizations say shields the decision desk from competitive pressures.

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Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

In 2018, Fox News was 50 minutes ahead of any other network in projecting that the Democrats would take control of the House of Representatives. (“I know a lot of listeners out there, their heads are exploding,” the anchor Chris Wallace told viewers.)

Each television network makes its own state-by-state projections. But the projections rely on raw voting data from a handful of shared sources.

One group of networks — ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC — collaborate on an exit-polling operation, administered by Edison Research. The Associated Press, which has an expansive vote-tracking effort, conducts its own count. Fox News, starting in 2018, relies on a proprietary model that draws from The A.P.

Besides the “magic wall” maps and flag-strewn graphics, the networks will trot out a few gizmos to keep viewers tuned in over what could be a long night — or week, or month. CBS News, for instance, is broadcasting from a recently built set overlooking Times Square, in the studio that housed MTV’s “Total Request Live.”

A poll by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that more than half of Americans thought it could take a week or longer to determine the results (although Mr. Trump declared on Twitter on Friday, “The Election should END on November 3rd”). Three-quarters of those surveyed said they expected some news outlets to “rush to announce a winner.”

Mr. Oppenheim, of NBC News, said he was keenly aware of his responsibilities. “It’s possible we will have a clear outcome on election night at a reasonable hour, and I don’t want the audience to be suspicious of that,” he said. “It’s possible we won’t have an outcome for several days, or several weeks.”

In 2000, when networks twice erroneously declared a winner in Florida, Mr. Oppenheim was working as a production assistant at MSNBC. “Those of us who have grown up in the last 20 years of television journalism understand that election nights can take any number of surprising directions,” he said. “Our job is to be prepared for all of them.”

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