Election night boob tube coverage was once more the “men’s club” it has always been in spite of CBS.
Except on the anchor desks and panels of experts, where every news division, even CNN, seemed to have sent out an inter-office memo that said, “stag.”

And that was perhaps the biggest contribution Katie Couric, the CBS anchor, made on Tuesday night: she stood out as one anchor not wearing a necktie.

On a night that crowned Nancy Pelosi as the first female speaker of the House and Hillary Rodham Clinton as the Democratic front-runner for the 2008 presidential race, the tableau of men talking to men all across prime time was oddly atavistic — a men’s club from around 1962.

On NBC Brian Williams, Tim Russert and the emeritus anchor Tom Brokaw formed a triumvirate of pinstripes and percipience. Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos of ABC were so cozy and old-school across their giant, donut-shaped desk that they only perfunctorily turned, via satellite, to the network’s veteran Congressional correspondent, Cokie Roberts.

The panel of commentators that Fox News assembled to back up Brit Hume looked like a funereal barbershop quartet: Bill Kristol, Juan Williams, Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke. (Even at 6 o’clock this morning, Fox reporters still seemed to be in denial: Steve Doocy, a “Fox and Friends” anchor, asked a guest what a Pelosi-led House of Representatives would look like “if” she became speaker.)

CNN’s Anderson Cooper did turn for help to Candy Crowley, who was sandwiched between John King and Marcus Mabry of Newsweek, but the panel behind them, CNN’s so-called “brain trust” (Bill Bennett, J. C. Watts, James Carville and Paul Begala) looked like a police lineup on Mount Athos.

And the group that MSNBC chose to play backup to Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann was only a little more coed: the NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell was wedged in alongside Joe Scarborough, Eugene Robinson and Howard Fineman. (The hissy fit of the night was between men: Mr. Scarborough, who was a Republican congressman before becoming a news show host, grew sulky when Mr. Matthews agreed with a guest who accused Mr. Scarborough of partisanship in describing Senator Clinton as leftist.)

Ms. Couric, whose evening newscast has fallen back to third place, did not outdo her rivals. ABC, which benefited from starting its special at 9:30 Eastern time, directly after the megahit “Dancing With the Stars,” appears to have come in first. Preliminary ratings for the 10 p.m. hour showed ABC holding on to 8.7 million viewers, while NBC earned 7.2 million and CBS had 7.1 million, according Nielsen’s estimates.

Ms. Couric wasn’t even the only anchor leading the network’s prime-time election coverage for the first time: Mr. Williams at NBC and Mr. Gibson at ABC were also on new ground. Mr. Williams, who also made pronouncements on MSNBC, was all confidence and crisp command. (At one point on MSNBC he coined the word “corollarily” to make a transition.) Mr. Gibson seemed more relaxed, but also a little sleepy.

Ms. Couric was less stately than her male rivals, deferring a bit coyly to the venerable Bob Schieffer, who served as interim Evening News anchor after Dan Rather resigned. And that less serious image was compounded today after President Bush announced Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. After the news conference, all three anchors went on the air. Ms. Couric hurried off after only a few minutes, but Mr. Williams and Mr. Gibson stayed on the story.

As she had said she would on her chatty blog on CBSNews.com, Ms. Couric worked some obscure trivia into her election-night conversation with Mr. Schieffer, including the fact that Senate candidate Jon Tester lost three fingers in a childhood meat-grinding accident. (This was before it became clear that Mr. Tester won his race in Montana.)

She also wove in a word that is naughty by network standards: when discussing the Virginia Senate race, she cited the Democratic challenger Jim Webb’s infamous description of the United States Naval Academy as “a horny woman’s dream.”

But throughout the night Ms. Couric looked comfortable and confident. And, perhaps more significant, CBS showed the confidence to give other female correspondents high-profile positions: the political reporter Gloria Borger had top billing on the special, and so did Sharyl Attkisson. CBS’s panel of experts was evenly balanced: Mike McCurry spoke on behalf of Democratic strategists and Nicolle Wallace for the Republicans.

The gender gap on election nights doesn’t match the rest of television news: be it on cable or the networks, female reporters cover every field, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

It could be that men still dominate on election night because politics is like the N.F.L.: it’s always two guys in the booth doing the play by play, while women cover the sidelines. Maybe it’s the women who avoid signing on to a lifetime of covering politics: the campaign trail is fattening, and requires far too much math.

More likely, the election night throwback to the days of Brylcreem and cigarette smoke comes from a confluence of overconfidence and insecurity.

Women are now so well represented on television that executives no longer feel the need to prove their commitment to equality, particularly now that they feel pressure to disprove the common assumption that other news sources are equal to the networks. Viewers no longer turn to network election-night specials for instant results and off-the-cuff analysis. All that can be found at any time, more speedily, on cable and the Internet.

Election night on the networks is increasingly a performance piece: for the hour or so of prime-time coverage, the networks project grandeur and authority, seeking to show that they still count for more than counting up precincts.

To many, gravitas still comes in a necktie and cuff links. CBS is showing that sometimes pearl earrings and lipstick can also do the trick.

Attribution:NY Times.

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