As in past elections, network anchors are ready, projection-makers primed and analysts alerted for tonight's coverage of election returns for the full House, 34 Senate seats and 36 gubernatorial races.
But this time out, there's a major change in the all-night, so-called "wall-to-wall" TV coverage that has been traditional for CBS, NBC and ABC, whether election night involved a presidential candidate or not.
Tonight, only CBS of the three major TV networks is devoting the full evening to election coverage, with Dan Rather at the anchor helm. (On the West Coast, that broadcast, aired in Los Angeles by KCBS-TV, will start at 5 and end at 11 p.m. PST.)
NBC and ABC have opted for abbreviated coverage in prime time, with West Coast viewers getting only one major prime-time report from a network other than CBS--a 50-minute wrap-up scheduled to air on KNBC-TV at 10:10 p.m. with NBC's Tom Brokaw as anchor.
ABC, which says it will probably periodically feed brief reports to the West Coast in prime time, is offering a 90-minute live and taped election-night broadcast anchored by Peter Jennings and David Brinkley.
But out West, that program ends at 8 p.m., leaving the night mostly devoted to entertainment, including the hit "Moonlighting" series. (After prime time, however, ABC will offer West Coast viewers their own one-hour Election Night edition of Ted Koppel's "Nightline," which means Koppel will be on duty until 3:30 a.m. New York time.)
In addition to the Election Night coverage--or lack of it--by the networks, both Ted Turner's Cable News Network and Washington-based C-Span will offer all-night reportage, commentary and in C-SPAN's case, two call-in hours.
The short-form coverage by NBC and ABC has prompted criticism that, because of today's tight broadcasting economy, those networks are giving short shrift to public enlightenment in favor of the revenue that entertainment fare brings and election-night coverage invariably loses.
Balderdash, say news executives at those networks. They say that the decision to go to short-form coverage was an editorial judgment, not propelled by pressure from the business side of their networks.
Old-fashioned all-night coverage doubtless will be back when the nation elects a new President in 1988, they say. But they add that such coverage for off-year elections, when House, Senate and state house races are the main events, probably is an idea whose time has come and gone.
That it has been the network norm in past years is largely due to "knee-jerk" thinking, says ABC News Vice President Jeff Gralnick, executive producer of his network's election-night broadcasts.
"There comes a time when you've got to look at things with a fresh eye," he adds. That time, he says, came in 1984, when he sat down with top ABC executives, including news chief Roone Arledge.
"It's just a question of defining the news story you're covering and then doing the proper programming for that story," and what emerged is what ABC is offering tonight, he says.
NBC News President Larry Grossman calls all-night election telecasts in off years "a vestigial organ from the old days." He cites two basic reasons for his division's decision to shift to the short form this year:
--NBC affiliates, "with our encouragement," have become able to provide their own significant, sophisticated coverage of both local and state elections, and no longer rely as heavily on their network as in the past during off-year elections.
--"There is one national issue, and that is: Who is going to win (control of) the Senate? We'll deal with that during our 'Nightly News' and other reports, but you can't spend three hours analyzing who is going to win the Senate."
CBS News President Howard Stringer looks at this year's election night as "a major national event," and "I think that's the biggest reason for carrying it" in the traditional all-night manner.
And, he says, even though network television is facing lean economic times, his superiors gave a fairly quick yes when asked to turn tonight's prime time over to the news division, as has been the custom on past election nights.
"The decision was that this company can afford to cover something like an off-year election that happens once every four years," said Stringer, interviewed shortly before he was named the news CBS News chief last week.
"It's a sufficiently rare and significant event to cover enthusiastically. . . There wasn't a great deal of discussion about it."
In past years, network vote projections based in part on voter exit polls were regarded by some politicians as coverage that was a bit too enthusiastic. Complaints were made and Washington hearings held.
This year, under a voluntary three-network agreement that an NBC spokeswoman says was reached in February, 1984, no network will project election returns in any state until that state's polls have closed.
C-SPAN, a nonprofit cable cooperative serving 25 million homes, will have live Election Night programming from 3 p.m. to at least midnight EST.
The offerings, a spokeswoman says, will include reports on how things went for candidates whose campaigns were either guided by celebrated media gurus or backed by funds from various Political Action Committees.
Cable News Network, which says it serves 35 million homes, will start its all-night coverage at 3 p.m. and keep going until 2 a.m.