NEW YORK -- It was the ultimate in reality television for grateful networks Tuesday: a presidential election with the final survivor a true mystery as the night wore on.
After a nailbiting night, shortly after 2:15 a.m. EST, the TV networks declared George W. Bush the winner over Al Gore in Florida -- and thus the nation.
But that didn't end the drama. By 3:30 a.m. EST, NBC's Tom Brokaw continued to wonder aloud if Florida was a lock for Bush.
"That would be something if the networks managed to blow it twice in one night," he said. Before too long, CNN started to waver, too -- especially after neither candidate appeared in public as expected.
And soon after that, the networks declared Florida too close to call -- thus rescinding their predictions of a Bush win overall. Putting Florida back in the undecided column placed Gore ahead with 249 electoral votes to Bush's 246 -- with 270 necessary to clinch.
"An extraordinary and bizarre evening," Brokaw said, with decided understatement.
Earlier in the evening, the networks had been reduced to rescinding their shared prediction that Gore would win Florida.
It all made for gripping television. The networks spent millions of dollars on polls and vote-gathering efforts in an attempt to find out the results as quickly as possible. Instead, they got something better -- old-fashioned suspense.
"Those of you who have stayed up with us, you have been rewarded with one of the all-time close races," CBS' Dan Rather said at one point.
On Tuesday night, several analysts said their networks were taking time declaring states for either candidate, wanting to make sure exit poll results matched up with actual returns.
"We're waiting on a possible decision in Florida, but you've got time to put on another cup of coffee and pour it," Rather said before 8 p.m. EST.
Ten minutes later, NBC projected Gore the winner in Florida. Other networks followed soon after. But two hours later, video of Bush appeared on TV screens saying he wasn't giving up Florida. By 9:55 p.m. EST, CNN had taken back its projection that Gore had won the state. CBS quickly followed, then NBC.
"This night got even more complicated and tricky," CNN's Jeff Greenfield said.
An early sign of a tight race came during the network evening news. Anchors usually can be counted on to drop subtle hints from exit poll results about how the night will unfold, but few were forthcoming.
Rather convened a panel of political experts and asked them to pick a winner at about 6:40 p.m. EST. Linda DiVall picked Bush, Harrison Hickman guessed Gore and Norm Ornstein took a pass. "I honestly don't know," he said.
ABC's George Stephanopoulos, the former political operative for President Clinton, predicted legal challenges to vote counts would be brought in several states if the race stayed close.
Peter Jennings anchored ABC's coverage from a midtown Manhattan studio, alternating between the lights of Times Square blinking behind him and the lights from an electoral map.
On NBC, analyst Russert used a laser pointer to pick out states on a red, white and blue map. Later, Russert discarded the pointer to scribble voting projections in pen on a white tablet.
CNN and Fox News Channel used a graphic borrowed from sporting events, displaying an electoral vote count as a scorecard on the corners of their screen.
MSNBC -- the cable network started by Microsoft -- was disarmingly low-tech: A production assistant, Kara Kaplan, filled in states on a map like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Even as they faced the prospect of a sleepless night, political reporters were almost gleeful.
"This is Christmas Eve for us political junkies," MSNBC's Chris Matthews said before any polls closed. "It certainly beats the Oscars. It beats the World Series."
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