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Cable Catching Up in Election-Ratings Polls

If the results of the last two national cycles can serve as indicators, cable news networks figure to narrow the gap against the broadcast channels with their election-night-2006 coverage.

Cable’s cause will also be bolstered by scheduling: Cable networks will largely have the TV screen to themselves for election enthusiasts Tuesday because the Big Three networks -- although they will provide updates throughout the evening -- only plan to solely focus on campaign 2006 in the 10 p.m. (EST) hour.

During the 2002 midterm elections, Fox News Channel (2.74 million), CNN (2.46 million) and MSNBC (940,000) combined to average 6 million viewers in primetime, according to Nielsen Media Research data. That compared with a collective 34 million for ABC (9.7 million), NBC (11.4 million) and CBS (12.9 million). As such, cable grabbed about 15% of the viewers in primetime on election-night 2002 (Nov. 5).

Two years later, Fox News (8.05 million), CNN (6.20) and MSNBC (2.83) amassed more than 17.08 million viewers versus 39.5 million for the Big Three -- ABC (13.7 million), CBS (10.1 million) and NBC (15.7 million), according to Nielsen data. By those measurements, cable upped its share of viewing on election-night 2004 (Nov. 2) to 30%.

That ratio will likely rise again given that the broadcast networks will only air one dedicated hour in primetime Tuesday night.

CBS is airing NCIS and The Unit at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., respectively, while NBC is offering Friday Night Lights and Law & Order: Criminal Intent in those time slots. ABC has scheduled Dancing with the Stars and Help Me, Help You, and Fox will run Standoff and House during the aforementioned hours.

Meanwhile, the three cable news networks will hit the political circuit hard Tuesday night.

CNN’s coverage will run from 7 p.m.-midnight with AmericaVotes 2006, anchored by Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Lou Dobbs and Paula Zahn live from its state-of-the-art studio in the Time Warner Center in New York.

CNN said that by using its News Wall video wall, it will be able to present real-time vote information, exit polls and analysis of races across the country.

After the polls close, CNN will air a special two-hour edition of Larry King Live starting at midnight.

Over at Fox News, Brit Hume will kick off with Special Report at 6 p.m. and the network’s coverage will extend through midnight. The network will examine the latest returns, with Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday reporting about national exit polls. Overall analysis will be provided by The Beltway Boys hosts Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke; political contributor Juan Williams; Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard; and Michael Barone, columnist for U.S. News and World Report.

In the nation’s capital, chief political correspondent Carl Cameron will provide up-to-the-minute reporting on Senate races, while Major Garrett will report on House action and Megyn Kendall will focus on the latest results of the gubernatorial races. Chief White House correspondent Bret Baier will provide live updates from the White House.

At MSNBC, coverage also begins at 6 p.m., with Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann anchoring from MSNBC election headquarters. During the coverage, which will extend through 6 a.m. Wednesday, Matthews and Olbermann will be joined by Brian Williams, Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw, NBC’s power trio, with additional interviews and analysis.

Chuck Scarborough and Tucker Carlson will analyze the results with a panel of political reporters and experts including Newsweek's Howard Fineman, Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan, The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson and CNBC's Carl Quintanilla.