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Ultra-cautious commentators had vast amounts of airtime to fill

Caution was the byword for American broadcasters last night. That was the buzz before the vote count started and it held true.

Everybody in network news and at the cable news channels remembered the debacle of 2000, where early, inaccurate predictions caused chaos. They were rueful about their errors, early calls and mistakes. Never again, the TV news bosses said.

It sure was cautious for the initial hours after the first polls closed at 7 p.m. EST. "Decision Desks" were non-existent. The most widely used phrase was, "We don't have enough information." Eventually, as the race tightened and Ohio and Florida were way too close to call, it was math night on TV. It was all calculations, no predictions. Early on, there was endless blather from Wolf Blitzer and Judy Woodruff on CNN about not -- definitely not, no way -- making early predictions based on imprecise information. Explanations of the computer systems and other data-gathering devices abounded but were barely comprehensible to anyone outside of an IT department.

In fact it was 8:05 p.m. before anyone said anything sensible. It was Canadian Peter Jennings on ABC who listened to a windy explanation of differing voting systems from an ABC analyst and said, "This seems so strange to people in other countries."

In the hour between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., it was all natter and no-news on the all-news cable channels.

Here in Canada, not all the main American networks' coverage was instantly available at 7 p.m. The Buffalo affiliates of ABC and CBS -- watched in Toronto -- carried sitcoms until 8 p.m. NBC was going strong, though. Tom Brokaw was listening to reporters in Florida and Pennsylvania indicate that there were voting problems and legal tussles. Like everybody else on the air at that point, Mr. Brokaw's main point was that it was going to be a long night.

At 8 p.m., when some polls closed in some 16 states, there were hesitant predictions of early indicators. On CBS, Dan Rather adopted his solemn voice and said the numbers suggested, at that point, 88 Electoral College votes for George W. Bush, and 77 for John Kerry. Then Mr. Rather reverted to his folksy wackiness and, pointing a pencil at a map, declared, "George Bush has the hot dice right now!"

In fact, with the American broadcasters being so ostentatiously cautious, it was Canadian broadcasters who dared to carry rumours of very early voting returns and exit polls.

Shortly after 9 p.m., on the Newsworld edition of CBC's The National, Peter Mansbridge was talking about Mr. Bush having "a healthy lead" in early counting in Florida. At that point, no American channel was anything near as daring.

As 10 p.m. approached and news broke that Mr. Bush would speak to the press, there was consternation. No pundit or news anchor could figure out Mr. Bush's game plan. On CTV Newsnet, Craig Oliver speculated that there might be some big news from Iraq. When Mr. Bush eventually appeared, briefly, and said, "We're very upbeat, thank you." Nobody knew what to make of it.

But the Bush appearance at least added a smidgen of excitement on what was turning into a dull grind of tense, ultra-cautious pronouncements and uneasy speculation.

CNN was the most addled channel for much of the night. Mr. Blitzer huffed and puffed his way around a long, warped wall of charts and maps and, it seemed, every two minutes he was reminding viewers that CNN was being cautious.

On CBS, the network had morphed into the old-grey-haired-guy channel. Rather, Ed Bradley and Bob Schieffer, all elderly by TV standards, looked more doleful than excited by the night's events. Even CBS White House correspondent John Roberts seemed to have finally left his Canadian, J.D. Roberts, behind and his hair was all grey. The single female present, Lesley Stahl, appeared to have had her hair fried for the occasion. It was a welcome distraction in the midst of all the caution. Exciting it wasn't.

After all the intense, often partisan arguments among pundits that comprised much of the coverage during the campaign, last night's events on TV were downright weird. An occasional outburst of squabbling from the Crossfire gang on CNN was about as loud as it got.

So spooked were the networks and news channels by the mistakes of 2000 -- when Florida was wrongly predicted twice -- that boredom must have set in for all but the most avid political junkie.

By 10:30 p.m., with the numbers from handful of tightly contested states still unclear, and with nobody willing to make a prediction, the excitement on television was to be found on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which CTV aired in Canada. The special was called "Indecision 2004" and at that point it proved correct. Not only was there a lack of a precise decision from the American voting system, but there was indecision among the broadcasters about saying anything potentially inaccurate.

On The Daily Show, contributor Samantha Bee did some "exit polling" by asking people about their shopping and toilet habits and, in one case asked a man whether she could see his penis. As happened so often during this long election campaign, The Daily Show accurately captured the absurdity of American politics and the media that cover it.

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