Mega mea culpa

Sex, lies and president spike ratings

NEW YORK — TV viewers couldn’t get enough of the chief exec this week.

President Clinton’s mea culpa garnered maximum ratings Monday, particularly for the all-news cablers, which saw their numbers soar to O.J./Princess Di levels.

Meanwhile, “The American President” — about Clinton’s reel-life counterpart (Michael Douglas), whose political enemies play up a scandal that threatens his administration — delivered nearly 5 million households on Sunday to TBS, which said it marked the largest audience for any theatrical film in basic cable history.

But basic cable numbers soared even higher the following night.

Monday viewership, not surprisingly, peaked just after 7 p.m. during Clinton’s address to the nation. Among cablers, CNN was the runaway winner for speech coverage, attracting a whopping (by cable standards) 5.42 million homes as Clinton spoke from approximately 7:02 to 7:07 p.m.

That’s CNN largest tune-in since the verdict in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial was handed down three years ago, and ranks as basic cable’s fifth highest-rated program of the year.

During that same frame, MSNBC’s audience soared to 942,000 homes, while Fox News Channel’s viewership rocketed to 462,000 homes — at least four times each cabler’s usual household numbers during primetime.

Final national Nielsen data for the broadcast webs’ speech coverage will not be available until this morning, reps for the networks said. A Nielsen spokesman did not return repeated calls Tuesday, but spokesmen for the webs said that because Clinton’s speech was scheduled with only hours’ notice, the ratings monolith was not able to re-label network programming in time.

Boost for webs

According to metered market overnight ratings data, Clinton’s speech — in which he took responsibility for an improper relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky — appeared to boost the Big Three webs to numbers well ahead of their recent 10-10:30 p.m. summer averages.

Since Nielsen generally measures viewership for those networks in 15-minute increments, the company apparently also was having difficulty pinning down a precise number of people who watched since Clinton talked for less than five minutes.

As for the cablers, their decision to focus on Clinton’s grand jury testimony all day Monday paid off with huge ratings gains.

Total-day numbers for Monday indicate CNN averaging a 1.8 rating and 1.3 million homes; MSNBC attracting a 0.7 rating and 309,000 homes; and Fox News Channel earning a 0.6 rating and 192,000 homes. Compared to their year-to-date total day ratings, Fox News Channel had ratings six times its usual numbers, while CNN and MSNBC more than tripled their usual audiences.

Best day

MSNBC said it had its largest single-day audience since Sept. 6, 1997, the day of Princess Diana’s funeral.

Several cablers smashed ratings records, including Fox News Channel, which had its largest audience ever from 10-11 p.m. Monday. CNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews” earned its best ratings ever with a 1.4 rating (914,000 homes) from 8-9 p.m. Monday.

CNN’s “Larry King Live” also had a great ratings night Monday, with special editions before and after Clinton’s speech, each averaging 3.9 million homes — the show’s largest audience in three years.

The basic cable numbers could topple the new ratings record set only last week.

Driven by the TV premiere of “The American President” and wrestling, basic cable recorded its all-time high primetime ratings for the week Aug. 10-16. Basic cable’s 25.0 rating broke the 24.0 that was set March 16-22, 1998, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

Last week, basic cable averaged 24.5 million households and a 47 share. The previous record, a 46 share, was set the week of June 22-28, 1998. Those numbers beat the six broadcast networks’ combined performance of a 23.5 rating/44 share.

The six broadcast webs averaged 23.2 million households — 1.34 million homes less than basic cable.

Sunday’s 8 p.m. premiere of “American President” was the week’s No. 1 rated basic cable show, with a 6.6 rating/11 share in TBS’ universe.

The repeat of the pic at 10:30 p.m. on Sunday also ranked in basic cable’s top 10 for the week, with a 4.1 rating/9 share.

USA Networks’ Monday night “WWF Wrestling” tied with ESPN’s Sunday afternoon NASCAR race with a 4.8 universe rating. Discovery Channel’s “Titanic Live” drew a 4.1 rating/7 share Sunday night from 8-10 p.m.

The performance of “President” drove TBS to the primetime ratings lead for the week, with a 2.5 average rating/4.5 share and 1.8 million homes.

USA, led by wrestling, ranked second with a 2.4 rating/4.1 share, followed by Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite with a 2.3/4.0.

TNT tied with the new Fox Family Channel for fourth place with a 1.9 rating. “Titanic Live” helped Discovery score a 1.6 rating, tied with Lifetime and Cartoon Network.

Nickelodeon won basic cable’s total day race with a 1.7 rating and 1.2 million households.

The overall basic cable rating of 25.0 was 16.8% more than the same week a year ago. Cable’s 24.5 million household delivery was good for a 17.9% increase compared with last year.

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