NEW YORK (AP) – As millions of Americans tuned in Tuesday to see who’s elected president, the television networks said new systems designed to avoid the spectacular failure of their blown calls four years ago were – at least initially – working smoothly.

“So far, so good,” said CBS News spokeswoman Sandra Genelius.

Five TV news organizations and The Associated Press formed the National Election Pool to conduct exit polls of voters, while the AP was supplying actual vote counts from across the nation.

The networks pledged to use the information with caution after twice prematurely declaring a winner in Florida in 2000 – the second time awarding the presidency to George W. Bush weeks before it was settled.

Still, networks instantly declared winners in four of six states where polls closed at 7 p.m. EST, on the basis of exit polls.

As voters made their choices, cable news networks ran seemingly endless tape loops of President Bush voting in Texas and John Kerry in Massachussetts, mixing in pictures of voters standing in line at polling places.

Television pundits tried, with varying degrees of success, not to reflect information from exit polls that might indicate how the race was going. It was even more noticeable this year because those poll numbers, once available only to a privileged few, were spread quickly across the Internet, said Joe Trippi, an MSNBC analyst and former Howard Dean campaign manager.

“If you’ve got a choice between going to a blog and finding exit polls or watching CNN or MSNBC, you’re either doing both or going to the blogs, because you’re getting things that the networks won’t give you,” he said.

Trippi said that he agreed with network decisions not to influence the vote by reporting on the information before polls closed.

ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and the AP disbanded their previous exit poll and vote-counting consortium, Voter News Service, after the 2000 fiasco and another failure in 2002. Two veteran polling outfits – Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research – collaborated on exit polls this year.

The AP said it has beefed up its vote-counting operation now that it will be the sole source of these results for the news organizations.

The National Election Pool says it has made accommodations for the surge in early voting. While exit polls were taken in only three states that offered early voting in 2000, NEP has polled early voters in 13 states this year, including Florida, said Michael Mokrzycki, the AP’s director of polling.

The networks all said that their typical competition to declare results first would be cast aside.

“We would rather be last than be wrong,” CBS anchor Dan Rather said.

In response to what happened in 2000, NBC quarantined its experts making calls on winners and losers in a room without TV sets so they couldn’t see their rivals, while Fox had four executives on its decision desk and promised not to call a state unless all four agreed. CBS said it wouldn’t declare a winner or loser in any state, cautiously saying it would only “estimate” a winner.

AP-ES-11-02-04 2001EST

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