The No-Win Zone

At 6:45:25 p.m. on Nov. 7, a grandfatherly Brit Hume, the lead anchor of the Fox News Channel’s “You Decide

At 6:45:25 p.m. on Nov. 7, a grandfatherly Brit Hume, the lead anchor of the Fox News Channel’s “You Decide 2006” midterm-election coverage, raised his hand, Moses-like, to silence a rant from William Kristol.

“It’s a Democratic year,” concluded Mr. Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and one member of the Fox “All-Star Panel.” With that, Mr. Hume cut to a commercial.

“That was good,” Mr. Hume said. “Good work, everyone.” Just out of view of the five cameras were Mr. Hume’s anchor rations for the night: three bottles of Poland Spring, two chocolate-chip chewy granola bars, Ziploc baggies filled with pretzels, popcorn and black licorice, and a half-drunk liter of Pepsi. Mr. Hume is not a big election-night coffee guy.

It would be a depressing evening for much of his audience, but inside the studio, the mood was upbeat. During the break, Messrs. Hume and Kristol—plus three other Fox All-Stars—bantered about the flimsiness of exit-poll data, which they all agreed is heavily biased toward Democrats.

“It’s a bunch of 24-year-old graduate students and retirees,” said Mr. Kristol, off-camera. “Who else has time to stand outside a polling place all day long?”

“Wearing peace buttons,” added The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes.

“They’re taking actual data that may be inaccurate and then they’re guessing at it,” said Mr. Hume.

“One thing is for sure,” said Mr. Kristol. “It’s not middle-class women out there.”

At 6:52:30, a producer signaled that they were back from break. Elsewhere on television, polling data was slowly trickling in, projecting the first Democratic wins. Mr. Hume acknowledged his cue, shuffled his feet under the desk, removed his glasses and looked into the camera.

“We’ll be here all night,” he said. “Having a good old time.”

Going into Tuesday night, Mr. Hume had been the lead anchor for more elections than the three major-network evening anchors put together. That is to say, he had anchored more than zero. The midterms were Katie Couric’s first election on the CBS Evening News, and they were Charles Gibson’s first on ABC World News with Charles Gibson. Even Brian Williams, who succeeded Tom Brokaw on the NBC Nightly News nearly two years ago, was soloing for the first time.

And elections offer a rare chance for anchors—and the networks behind them—to prove themselves. A TV news anchor isn’t remembered for deft teleprompter reading or a particularly kicky intro into a feature on gas prices. Elections are the kind of major story, along with wars and disasters, for which the public still turns to a TV newsman (or newswoman) first.

“We don’t get paid to do the news on a random Wednesday,” said Mr. Williams the day before the election. “We get paid for those rare days. One of the last anchors called it a handholding function. There is that sense of viewers coming together to share an experience. We all grew up with it. We still serve that need.”

Election broadcasts are also held, in the industry, to be one of the few times that deeply loyal evening-news audiences will click around and try out different anchors. Executives at all three broadcast networks said they hoped to benefit from this taste-testing.

“Charlie has been like a college senior studying for finals,” said World News executive producer Jon Banner. “We all are sort of getting ready, and he’s obviously had the most to prepare for. He’s never been in this position before, and I think he—for him, this is a very special day, Election Day.”

“This is the first opportunity where a significant audience will be able to take the measure of the three anchors at a very important time in our country,” Mr. Banner said. “And in that way, it is important. No matter how this ends up, in terms of who finished first, second and third, I don’t think there’s any way to deny that.”

“This is the highest-profile hiring we’ve had in a long time, probably, at the CBS television network,” said CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus of Ms. Couric. “Of course I feel personally responsible, personally tied to the success of it. But the numbers tonight are just one thing I’m focused on.”

Then there was Mr. Hume, a veteran of five previous national elections, and his network. The night before, he had sounded less than giddy about the coming events.

“I’ve lived in Washington nearly all my life,” Mr. Hume said on the evening of Nov. 6. “But I don’t spend a lot of my off hours thinking about politics. I just don’t. I’ve been doing this a long time, and it’s just not as fascinating to me as it used to be. Look, journalism is a lot about enthusiasm. You have to have it. I find I am no longer as interested in politics as I was. I get interested, though. I get as interested as I have to. But I’m kind of watching myself on this …. ”

Mr. Hume’s deep voice had sunk into an especially low garble on this last line. Had he said “watching” or “whacking”?

“Watching. Although”—he laughed—“whacking works, too. This old horse probably needs a few whacks.”

Fox catapulted into first place among the cable networks in the beginning of 2001—propelled to victory, like George W. Bush, by the five gripping weeks of Florida recounts. The early Bush era coincided with booming ratings for the network that had promised to cover the Republican administration without what Fox president Roger Ailes calls cynicism (and his critics may call skepticism or the fundamental independence of a free press).

Whatever it was, Fox didn’t have it, and that absence made the network unstoppable for five years.

As the President’s approval rating tumbled this year, the cable channel playing on every television in the West Wing saw its viewership level off and, at times, sag.

On Nov. 7, for the first time in the five years since Fox overtook CNN, the network’s core conservative viewership faced disappointing news on an election night.

“You’re certainly aware of that,” he said. “It raises a challenge about whether they’ll find any reason to watch. My view of that is, if you do a compelling job, the answer is yes.”

“On the one hand, you always care about what your audience wants,” said Marty Ryan, the Fox News executive who coordinated the network’s election-night coverage. “On the other hand, it is what it is on election night. We spend months and weeks and years talking about what the people think and what we think is going to happen. Election night is unique on that front, because we actually get to see what the people want.”

In 2004, Fox was the first of the broadcast and cable networks to call the election for President Bush—not, as many said, because of exuberance, but because of Michael Barone, a Fox News contributor with a freakish grasp of voting patterns and countywide demographics. Mr. Barone decided that Ohio went red 20 minutes before anyone else did two years ago, and Mr. Hume credits him with helping to make Fox a destination for election-night viewers, even ones who anticipate bad news.

“There’s so much mystique about our decision team,” Mr. Ryan said.

Speaking from his hotel room in New York, Mr. Barone said he had been preparing for the 2006 midterm elections since the age of 16, when he first began committing county names, boundaries and demographic information to memory. “I did a little election-night analysis for Fox in 1996, which at that point was a pretty harum-scarum operation, if I can say that without incurring the wrath of Roger Ailes.”

In the decade since, Fox has gotten a lot slicker. Although Mr. Ailes, said his employees, is no cuddlier.

“Roger’s trying very hard to inspire us all to get back into that rip-roaring spirit we all had when we were struggling to get anybody to watch us,” Mr. Hume said. Fox had no special plans for election night, other than a new feature in which conservative pundit Michelle Malkin would occasionally check in with the blogosphere and report back.

Mr. Hume was preparing by familiarizing himself with the boundaries of key Congressional districts, such as the one in Connecticut represented by Christopher Shays. “I wasn’t clear on how far to the east it extended,” he said, tempering his enthusiasm.

In the broadcast match-up, Mr. Hume was rooting for Mr. Gibson, his old colleague from ABC News, who stood to benefit Tuesday night from many years of experience and from the hefty lead-in of Dancing with the Stars, which draws a weekly audience of 20 million viewers.

Mr. Gibson, Mr. Hume said, is the best anchor working today. “I’m not that good an anchor anyway,” he said. “I think Charlie’s more fluid, more natural. His sweetness comes through. I have sweetness, but it’s too well concealed.” The No-Win Zone