GOP's party produces shrinking ratings

The broadcast nets’ shrinking coverage of the political conventions has produced shrinking ratings as viewers continue to flee in search of anything resembling drama or intrigue.

The final night of last week’s GOP get-together, featuring presidential contender George W. Bush’s nomination acceptance speech, saw a ratings spike compared with the first three nights but didn’t go far enough to halt the overall downward trend. In their first hour of coverage Thursday, ABC, CBS and NBC each lost out to UPN’s wrestling.

These gatherings have never been ratings juggernauts, but their increasingly scripted nature has made them less newsworthy in the eyes of the nets — who have scaled back their coverage and are looking for still more creative ways to package the product.

CBS saw ratings gains on the first two nights, when — not without controversy — it wrapped convention coverage inside newsmags. By the final night, when the web served up two full hours of dedicated coverage, it fell to what appears to be an all-time ratings low for convention coverage.

Cable convention viewing for the week was up 38% compared with the Republicans’ 1996 convention (2.59 million vs. 1.88) — but that’s because Fox News Channel and MSNBC have joined CNN in providing extensive coverage. CNN, which had the cable pie to itself four years ago, saw its viewing levels slip by 30% (1.32 million vs. 1.88) despite adding 12 million homes to its universe since 1996.

Fox News saw its audience grow each night of the convention and pulled to within about 400,000 viewers of CNN on Thursday (1.14 million vs. 1.56). The all-news cabler also did very well in the key news demo of adults 25-54, drawing an average 324,000 viewers in the demo, compared with CNN’s 348,000 and MSNBC’s 228,000.

Whether Fox can continue this momentum at next week’s Democratic convention remains to be seen; the cabler, topped by ex-Republican campaign adviser Roger Ailes, is perceived to have played well to conservative viewers.

(Fox News is available in 53 million homes, less than MSNBC’s 58 million and CNN’s 79 million.)

As for the broadcast nets, ABC, which went the most traditional route by devoting one full hour on each of the first three nights, paid for that strategy by placing last on each occasion.

But thanks to a hefty lead-in advantage from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” on the final night, the net was able to rally and win Thursday’s two-hour block with an average 7.61 million viewers. That topped NBC (6.11 million) and CBS (4.96 million).

In homes, the three nets combined Thursday for a 13.1 rating and a 24% share of the total TV viewing pie — down slightly from the 13.4/25 for the Republicans in 1996 but still well below their 19.7/39 in 1992.

NBC, which led among the broadcast nets for both conventions in 1996, edged out CBS in total viewers to win both Tuesday and Wednesday after skipping Monday completely. The Peacock devoted a total of three hours to the GOP this year, down from 4-1/2 hours in 1996.

In a telling sign, NBC went from 9.1 million viewers at 9 p.m. Wednesday with “West Wing” — a fictional White House drama — to 5.0 million viewers at 10 with its convention coverage.

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