Election viewership on television and online could approach records Tuesday night — provided some suspense holds.
The presidential campaign has been a TV hit from crowded pre-primary debates through a Barack Obama infomercial last week that reached an "American Idol"-sized audience. It stands to reason that millions of Americans will tune in for the final results.
"All the indications are the audience should be the largest ever. But who knows?" said Paul Friedman, senior vice president of CBS News.
If bellwether states that report early, such as Virginia, go Obama's way, then it might be known quickly that the Democrat will be tough to beat, Friedman said. That would drain the evening of drama and might cause viewers to drift away, he said.
It would also mark a sharp contrast from 2000 and 2004, when the extraordinarily tight races caused viewers to tune in as the night wore on, said Thomas Patterson, professor of government and the press at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center.
A record average of 40.9 million American households watched the Bush-Gore results in 2000, according to Nielsen Media Research. Nielsen could not immediately estimate how many people were watching in those homes. The 2004 Bush-Kerry race was seen in 37.9 million homes with an average of 55.1 million viewers, Nielsen said.
Nielsen estimated that 40 percent of the nation's TVs were tuned in to the 2000 results, the highest percentage since 1980. During the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon contest, fully two-thirds of the TV homes were watching election results on either ABC, CBS or NBC. With few channels, there was little else to watch.
Coverage will be carried live Tuesday on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, PBS and C-SPAN. (MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.) Spanish-language networks will also have coverage, as well as networks targeted to African-Americans with the first black candidate with a real chance of being elected.
The top news Web site, Yahoo! News, anticipates a record-setting day. On Election Night in 2004, the site had 80 million page views; it expects that number to at least double this year, said site spokesman Jason Khoury. The number of people specifically checking out political news has skyrocketed as well. Visitors are spending an average of 10 minutes on its top political page, "a lifetime on the Web," Khoury said.
Yahoo! News is getting its political news primarily from The Associated Press, and will use the AP's call of individual states to update its electoral map, he said. Television networks are also relying on the AP for its vote returns, but the networks usually make their own projections on which candidates win.
CNN's Web site will allow users to customize results to follow individual races. MSNBC.com is offering interactive elements, too.
Several Web sites are streaming coverage: The Washington Post and Newsweek reporters will appear on washingtonpost.com, while Katie Couric will do a webcast after she gets off the air on CBS.
There's been an explosion of interest on politically oriented Web sites this fall. The Huffington Post, for example, jumped from 792,000 unique visitors in September 2007 to 4.5 million this September. Newsbusters.org went from 113,000 to 732,000, and Talkingpointsmemo.com from 32,000 to 458,000.
Interest in the campaign has been extraordinary, with three political speeches at the Republican and Democratic national convention each getting more than 40 million viewers. The vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden had 70 million viewers, second only to the Carter-Reagan presidential debate as the most-watched political debate on American television, Nielsen said.
"As a television event, it's been off the charts," Patterson said.