LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. television news teams that sent election-night viewers to bed without a sure winner in the last two presidential races now face what many political pundits expect to be a swifter outcome next Tuesday.
With Barack Obama consistently leading pre-election opinion polls, network news executives are ready for the possibility that the Democratic nominee could emerge early in the evening clearly headed for victory over Republican rival John McCain.
If, as widely predicted, Obama captures such critical states as Virginia, Florida, Ohio and Indiana -- where polls close by 8 p.m. Eastern time or earlier -- experts say he would be well on his way to winning the White House before the Western half of the country finishes casting ballots.
"If Obama wins those early, then that's a landslide ... and that means basically the story's going to be over by 8:30, so then they've got to decide what they're going to do for the rest of the evening," independent media analyst Andrew Tyndall said.
But if McCain scores an early upset in Pennsylvania, another Eastern battleground, "they'll know that it's going to be a long, long night," he said.
Network officials doubt they will feel confident enough to declare an overall winner before polls close in the West. And they insist there is plenty to keep viewers tuned in late, including whether Democrats can attain a filibuster-proof majority of at least 60 seats in the U.S. Senate.
Still, a lop-sided result for Obama would pose a rare challenge for broadcast news veterans accustomed to the kind of neck-and-neck race that kept audiences up until the early hours for the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004.
Network executives say they will stick with the practice in recent elections of not projecting a winner of any state until all that state's polls have closed. In some states, polls in certain areas close earlier than others.
And they vowed to put accuracy ahead of speed as they call races in each state and tally the corresponding Electoral College votes amassed by the nominees. To win, a candidate needs to collect at least 270 of the 538 electoral votes.
"I'll be particularly cautious this year," said CNN political director Sam Feist, explaining that higher-than-usual registration by young people, first-time voters and blacks could skew previous voter patterns. "There's no rush to project the winner."
One important step taken by news organizations before the 2008 election was to upgrade the system used in exit polls -- the surveys of voters conducted just after they cast their ballots that are often used to "call" a given state for a particular candidate. Over-reliance on exit polls has often proved misleading.
"We will base our calls on real votes and historical voting and exit polls, and will project those races only when we feel very comfortable that the margins are big enough," said ABC News senior vice president Jeffrey Schneider. "Our desire is be right, not to be necessarily first."
Media organizations are still smarting from flawed exit polling that led to erroneous reports of an early groundswell for Democrat John Kerry in 2004, and from an election night debacle in 2000 that ended with flip-flopping projections for Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. The disputed 2000 race ultimately was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Should all signs on Tuesday point to an Obama landslide, news directors say they will have no choice but to report the obvious.
Still, they are sensitive to striking a balance that avoids stating election trends as foregone conclusions while people in another part of the country are still voting.
"We know enough to say things like, 'Judging by the vote so far, it's going to be very difficult for Sen. McCain to win,'" said Paul Friedman, a CBS News senior vice president. "We'll all be doing that because there's just no way to pretend it's not happening."
In any case, CNN's Feist said, the unusually long 2008 primary season, in which the two major party candidates were chosen, has left the networks well prepared, giving the national media "more rehearsals for this election night than any presidential election in history."
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and David Storey