Web readies for election traffic

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It could be the Super Bowl of the Web split between Tuesday night and Wednesday as the demand for election results crushes previous traffic records at news media sites and, perhaps, the Web itself.

Broadcast and cable TV networks, newspapers and political sites predict their Web traffic will far surpass previous levels. Several are gearing up to handle as much as triple their previous maximum. They also are hoping the demand for news and the need to quickly turn statistics into charts won't overburden either their servers or the Web.

"The experiences that we had in 1996 with outages and computer slowdowns was one of our defining influences," said Mark Stencil, political editor of washingtonpost.com "We reconfigured our entire operation to handle it. We now always have extra capacity for news events. For Tuesday and Wednesday, we will have extra, extra capacity."

HIGH EXPECTATIONS FOR WEB

The Internet's dramatic growth in the last four years is one reason for the expectations. Also contributing are the closeness of this year's races for president and a number of House and Senate seats; the possibility that political control of at least one house could shift; the fact that a win by either Gov. George Bush or Vice President Al Gore will bring quick discussion of cabinet changes; and pushes by TV networks and newspapers for their Web sites, especially in light of newspaper deadline woes for print products.

While expecting consumers, few of the sites have sold ads for election night coverage separately.

Abcnews.com sold some video ads to Merrill Lynch & Co., while CNN is continuing to feature sponsors that bought a yearlong election package that included both the Web and the cable network. The sponsors are DaimlerChrysler, Paine Webber, Pharma, Ditech.com and Akamai.

But more traffic could mean more revenue for sites, since sites generate so much of their revenue based on the banner impressions they deliver. Just as important, the night could generate Web winners as sites race to deliver the news in hopes of building their reputations and buzz.

"The Internet is putting us back in the business of offering instantaneous results that newspapers handed to television half a century ago," Mr. Stencil said.

Editors and Web producers say consumers will still watch TV, but go to the Web for specific local interests.

VOTE RETURNS IN RAW FORM

"They will come for the presidential race or a hot race in their state," said Steve Jones, executive producer of abcnews.com. "They can see in raw form the vote as it comes in. That is something that years ago only the political professionals had access to."

Edna Johnson, VP of CNN Interactive, said CNN expects very heavy traffic.

"We have had four or five of our top traffic days in October, and consumers have shown keen interest in the politics."

Media Metrix, a unit of Jupiter Media Metrix, said the highest numbers it recorded for Web traffic came the week ended Sept. 24, a week when an average of more than 32 million visitors a day visited the Web.

Craig Smith, the top Democratic strategist serving as VP of Democratic affairs for voter.com, said the site had expected to serve about 5 million pages each month this year but has recently served 12.5 million a month. "On election night, we think we could hit that number in one night," he said.

With a number of Web sites offering coverage, the question this time is where consumers turn.

The TV networks predict it will be their sites. Both cnn.com and abcnews.com will let consumers view the network's TV coverage on the Web, even as they offer additional information.

"We are based on a broadcast model and have a certain pride in getting the news up on our site first," Mr. Jones said. "On election night, we don't want to be second or third."

Newspapers, political sites and some other Web sites, however, say they have an advantage because they aren't tied to a single network.

A NUMBER OF SOURCES

"One of our key features is the channel surfer, a one-page lookup where you can see what all five of the networks are doing," said washingtonpost.com's Mr. Stencil. "We all have the same results from the same sources at the same time. The competitive aspect is how you present it and what you do with it."

Brad Kaplan, brand manager for Yahoo!'s news site, said Yahoo!, too, will offer news from a number of different sources and will add message boards and chat.

"We will bring a lot of resources and news sources, offering people not only a great way to read about the elections, but to discuss them."

A spokeswoman for New York Times Digital said nytimes.com also will offer e-mails alerts of victories and that reporters for The New York Times will update their newspaper stories for the Web election night and after the paper closes.

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