After past botched calls on winning candidates, the networks approached gingerly, even early exit polls on basic issues.
"We're gonna give you what we know," hedged Fox News Channel's Chris Wallace, "but you should take it with a grain of salt."
It wasn't until moments before 11 p.m. ET that NBC, MSNBC and ABC projected that the Democrats would gain a House majority.
But that didn't mean speculation wasn't plentiful.
For instance, early in the evening MSNBC's Keith Olbermann touched on breaking news of a pop star's divorce plans when he quipped that an overwhelming Democratic victory might signal "some sort of shift to get out of the (Iraq) war faster than Britney Spears got out of her marriage."
For its election coverage two years ago, CNN rented out the Nasdaq headquarters' studio in Times Square, with its room-length TV wall. This year, CNN used its own spacious, month-old studio equipped with sprawling TV screens — one that measures 24 feet long by 9 feet high.
But even during commercial breaks, CNN's viewers were kept informed: The text displays at the bottom of the screen continued, uninterrupted. Even for trigger-happy viewers, it provided an incentive to stay put.
While cable news channels stayed busy all day warming up for the outcome, the three broadcast networks, as usual, offered limited prime-time coverage: CBS and NBC each scheduled a one-hour special at 10 p.m. ET.
ABC had planned the same thing. But Tuesday afternoon, it announced a half-hour earlier start-time, pre-empting the sitcom "Help Me Help You" at 9:30 p.m. This not only gave ABC News 50 percent more airtime, it also took advantage of a high-rated lead-in show, ABC's hit, "Dancing with the Stars."
The midterm coverage served as an initiation for the broadcast networks' three anchors, including Katie Couric, the first woman to preside over a newscast, and the anchor of "The CBS Evening News" only since September. It was a complete turnover from the decades-long triumvirate of Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather that had still been intact for Election Night 2004.
Charles Gibson, officially named anchor of ABC's "World News" in May, occupied the chair long held by Jennings, who died in August 2005 of lung cancer.
Ensconced in a tidy, white election center that resembled the headquarters of a dot-com, Gibson reeled off the numerous races with crisp gusto.
"This is going to be fascinating. It could be historic," he greeted viewers.
Brokaw, who retired in December 2004, was invited back as a special correspondent assisting his successor, Brian Williams, for NBC's coverage.
For Couric, it was a coming-out event of sorts.
No surprise with the former "Today" show anchor, she was comfortably in charge at the hub of CBS' team of correspondents as she guided viewers through "where things stand now" — although when Bob Schieffer joined her at the anchor desk with his analysis, this veteran, grandfatherly newsman seemed, in contrast, to reduce her to girlish mode.
Schieffer, of course, had subbed as "CBS Evening News" anchor after Rather stepped down in March 2005.
Meanwhile, Rather (who left CBS last June to join HD Net, a cable network, where his new weekly newsmagazine premieres next Tuesday) logged some election-night airtime, too: as a "special correspondent for the night" for make-believe anchor Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's "Midterm Midtacular" broadcast.
"We knew Hillary Clinton would win in a landslide," said Stewart, seeking Rather's expert assessment. "But how would you describe the largeness of her victory?"
"It was a healthy margin," Rather declared.
Then, sensing Stewart's disappointment, Rather gave him what he wanted: a classic Ratherism.
"She ran away with it like a hobo with a sweet potato pie," Rather cracked, and the studio audience roared. The night was complete.
By FRAZIER MOORE