After losing viewers to cable news networks on recent election nights, television's biggest broadcasters are fighting back hard for the midterm contest.
ABC, CBS and PBS will each stream part of their election-night coverage on the Web on Tuesday, and NBC and ABC plan six hours of results lasting into early Wednesday morning. The networks will involve some of the biggest and most popular websites _ Google, Facebook, YouTube and Yahoo! _ in delivering their versions of the news.
Their moves are in marked contrast to recent big political nights, when network producers had to fight for limited time while looking jealously at CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, and their abilities to stay on stories 24 hours a day.
"It's a full-time effort to reach as many people in as many places as possible and still have the big event on television at 9:30," said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's "World News" and in charge of ABC's special events coverage.
ABC will air election coverage from 9:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET in prime time, anchored by Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos. From 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., the two anchors will stream a live program on ABC's website, on Facebook and the ABC News iPad application.
A separate ABC Web-only newscast, anchored by John Berman and Claire Shipman, will be streamed on Hulu, mobile platforms and Yahoo! beginning at 7 p.m.
ABC and CBS, in particular, have moved aggressively toward the Web because, unlike NBC, they don't have a cable outlet for their reporting. It's an effort likely to continue.
"We're going to be in more places and more devices two and four years from now than we are this year," Banner said.
CBS' Katie Couric has done frequent webcasts over the past couple of years and that's being incorporated in the network's plans this season. CBS will be on the air live for one hour in prime time, starting at 10 p.m. ET. Couric will anchor a live webcast for an hour after that.
For an hour before the TV network's telecast, CBS' "Washington Unplugged" will give election results and analysis online.
CBS will make some of its material available on YouTube and has a partnership with Google Inc. for access to the company's analysis of the political races.
"The future is here," said Rick Kaplan, "CBS Evening News" executive producer. "You can sit here and say, 'I'll dabble,' but that's silly. There's so much that you can do now."
At some point, viewing habits for events such as election night will become nonlinear, with viewers not distinguishing between what they see on television or computer screens, Kaplan said. The 2008 election was considered a milestone in "two-screen" viewing: Viewers following returns on TV screens but looking up information at the same time online, said Mark Lukasiewicz, head of special events coverage for NBC News.
"There will be a point at which this kind of coverage is offered to people who want it, as opposed to shoving it down the throat of people who are more interested in watching a movie," Kaplan said. Couric will be joined in her coverage by Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer, senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield and congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes.
Election night two years ago was a record day for the Internet and many of its news and social sites, a strong signal to many news executives of its potential.
Even while watching TV, many people used websites for "digging down" into results, checking how national trends affected elections in their hometowns. People went on social networks to talk about the results; Twitter set a record for its messaging that night; and news aggregator Digg had its greatest traffic.
Executives will be watching to see how many people make use of smart phones or tablets like the iPad for following results this year. ABC's iPad app lets viewers play a "what if" interactive game, using their predictions to illustrate how they might affect the balance of power.
NBC comes on the air for two hours, starting at 9 p.m. ET, for a broadcast anchored by Brian Williams. His predecessor as anchor, Tom Brokaw, and "Meet the Press" moderator David Gregory, will join him. After a local news break, the NBC News team will be on the air for four hours after that.
"We're up late because that's when the story is going to fully unfold," Lukasiewicz said.
NBC's live election coverage will be embedded on Twitter, allowing computer owners to watch it at home or send copies of videos to their friends online.
The network will also be active on social networks, hosting live chat sessions on its website and asking viewers to send in pictures of their polling places. The latter can be used to make a mosaic of the country on Election Day, and help journalists spot problems that may produce stories.
If the Super Bowl is a chance for advertisers to show off their creativity, election night is seen by networks as a place to display whiz-bang technology. NBC is using iPads, touch screens and virtual reality technology to tell its story. CNN, which offered a hologram two years ago as part of its coverage, will quadruple the size of the "data wall" that John King pioneered and display exit polling data with three-dimensional graphics.
PBS will use the Web, too, simulcasting its one-hour television special with Jim Lehrer on the Web at 11 p.m. Lehrer will do a one-hour webcast before going on television. On its website, PBS said it was doing a "social media stream," highlighting comments made by people on Twitter, Facebook and MySpace.
Fox News Channel and MSNBC are also planning coverage sure to please the ideological camps that both networks attract.
The experiments going on with the broadcast networks, however, are important moments in determining the future of their election night telecasts and for the operations of their news divisions as a whole.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org