In Depth

Cable News Networks Reap Political Ratings

The cable news networks, especially CNN, hit ratings pay dirt Monday night with their wall-to-wall coverage of the opening night of the Democratic National Convention. The convention lineup, featuring addresses by Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy and presidential candidate Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, seemed to hold little interest for broadcast networks audiences.

Viewing appears to have peaked during the 10 o’clock hour, which included Ms. Obama’s convention debut, at 22,296,685 total viewers according to Nielsen Media Research’s tally of the audiences in that common hour including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, BET and TV One.

According to Nielsen data, CNN was the biggest draw of the night with an average of 3.7 million viewers, up 85% from its July 26, 2004, opening night audience. Fox News Channel, usually the most-watched news network, averaged slightly more than 3 million viewers for the night, up 84% from 2004. MSNBC scored an average of slightly more than 2.1 million viewers, up 88% from opening night 2004.

Among the 25- to 54-year-old viewers who are the key news target audience, CNN racked up a hefty lead with an average of nearly 1.37 million viewers in the demographic, up 127% from four years ago, while Fox News averaged 776,000, up 42% from 2004. MSNBC averaged 847,000 viewers in the demo, up 122%.

Meanwhile, the broadcast networks, which each dedicated one hour to the convention, drew smaller audiences than they did four years ago.

ABC, CBS and NBC together brought in 12.1 million viewers in the 10 p.m. hour, down a combined one million from 2004, according to preliminary nationals.

NBC attracted the biggest audience, some 4.85 million viewers. Only ABC News’s convention special gained over its entertainment lead-in, picking up 1.6 million viewers following “Samantha Who?” to average 3.78 million viewers. ABC’s convention coverage was anchored by Charles Gibson, George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer.

ABC finished second in the head-to-head competition with NBC News’s hour anchored by Brian Williams, which averaged 4.85 million viewers, down 2.6 million from the lead-in supplied by “America’s Toughest Jobs.”

In third place, the CBS News Hour was anchored by Katie Couric, Bob Schieffer and Jeff Greenfield. The program averaged 3.52 million viewers, down 3 million viewers from “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”

In 2004, the networks’ convention coverage race was tighter, with CBS pulling out a narrow win with 4.55 million viewers to NBC’s 4.53 million and ABC’s 4.4 million.

In other programming, NBC rolled out the season premiere of “Deal or No Deal” (2.8/8), finishing behind a repeat of CBS's "Two and a Half Men," to place second in adults 18-49. NBC's launch of “America’s Toughest Jobs” scored a 2.6/7, winning the hour, but the program fell off 31% from its “Deal” lead-in in total viewers to 7.5 million.

NBC finished the night in first with a 2.3/6.

CBS took second with its repeats, and ended with a 1.8/5. Fox placed third with a 1.5/4, and ABC took fourth with a 0.8/2.

The CW was a close fifth with a 0.7/2.

(Editor: Baumann. Updates to delete fifth paragraph on Pew data.)