- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

News channels and networks didn’t attract the most people on election night: The Voice of America had the largest television audience of all, broadcasting straightforward returns and breaking news in 44 languages, to hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide.

“The number of networks which came to us requesting programming was unprecedented,” said David Jackson, director of the D.C.-based broadcasting service. “We don’t pretend to have an international perspective. We have an American perspective. But we speak their languages.”

The number of VOA viewers is staggering.

Programming for Indonesia alone, for example, was seen by an estimated 268 million viewers on the big night — compared with the 15 million viewers who tuned in to NBC, winner of the stateside ratings race, according to Nielsen.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, meanwhile, estimates that VOA’s Thai Service — with a staff of only four persons — attracted 50 million Thai viewers to its election-night programming.

More than 100 million viewers in India watched VOA Hindi correspondents broadcast live from both Republican and Democratic headquarters, via Aaj Tak, India’s leading cable-television network.

Another 28 million watched in Colombia.

The numbers dwarf those of American audiences. Behind NBC were ABC with 13.2 million, CBS with 9.5 million and Fox News with 8.1 million. CNN had 6.2 million and MSNBC had 2.9 million. The overall American prime-time audience was 55 million, according to Nielsen.

Far-flung VOA programming reached Ukraine, Russia, Serbia-Montenegro, Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Cyprus, Haiti and Africa, among others. KBC, the only national TV station in Kenya, broke away from CNN to carry a VOA report on the latest developments in English — and Swahili.

“This intense interest only proves the importance of explaining who we are as a people, and how we live,” Mr. Jackson said. “Our mission is not to promote the Voice of America, but to explain U.S. policy and give accurate news to people who may not have access to anything reliable.”

Their message must compete against anti-American propaganda, he said, and the cultural vacuum created when there is no news available at all.

Founded in 1942, VOA is funded by the federal government and also delivers news and information via radio and the Internet.

All programming separates news reports from commentary, which favors neither political party, VOA spokesman Joe O’Connell said.

“We don’t want any confusion as to what is news and what is editorial,” Mr. O’Connell said.

The official VOA commentary for election night offered a simple, positive take.

“U.S. presidential elections have often been hotly contested, and this one was no different. The United States has passed through times of great crisis, including war and economic depression. Yet no presidential election has ever been postponed or interrupted,” the editorial stated.

The VOA, in the meantime, still is accruing accolades from diverse news organizations for its election coverage, including the staff of Bosnia’s TV Hayat, which broke into applause after D.C.-based VOA reporter Omer Vatric answered their questions via a live, interactive broadcast.

“I got a recent call from a viewer in Johannesburg, South Africa,” Mr. O’Connell said. “He just wanted to congratulate America for setting an example for the world.”

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