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Bush speech, telethon both draw record auds

Events aired on all four major networks

Americans turned out in big numbers to watch a pair of unique events blanketed over numerous networks, with President Bush’s address to Congress on Thursday and Friday’s star-studded telethon grabbing the biggest non-Super Bowl audiences of the year.

Both events, tied to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, could be seen on all four major networks as well as multiple cable outlets. A patriotic mood may also have helped boost viewer interest in Saturday night’s “Miss America” pageant on ABC, at which Oregon’s Katie Harmon was crowned.

According to preliminary Nielsen figures, Thursday’s 45-minute address by President Bush commanded a 72 share of TV audience from 9-9:45 EDT, averaging 82.1 million viewers on the four broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) and five cable nets (CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Headline News and CNBC) that carried it live. It’s the most-watched presidential speech on record.

One night later, the two-hour “America: A Tribute to Heroes” drew a 65 share of U.S. households, averaging 59.3 million viewers. More than 30 national networks carried the telethon live, with Nielsen measuring ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN, the WB, Pax, PBS, BET, Comedy Central, Court TV, Discovery, E! Entertainment, f/x, Family Channel, Hallmark, HBO, Lifetime, MTV, Sci Fi, Showtime, the Learning Channel, TNN, TNT, TVLand, USA Network, VH1, Telemundo, Univision and Galavision.

Nielsen estimates that more than 89 million viewers watched at least some of the commercial-free telethon, which featured Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and Celine Dion, among many others.

The Thursday and Friday events stand as the second and third most-watched programs of the past year, behind only January’s Super Bowl on CBS, which averaged 84.3 million viewers. They also top, for example, the August 2000 finale of CBS’ “Survivor,” which averaged 51.7 million, and March’s Academy Awards on ABC (42.9 million). The Super Bowl, “Survivor” and the Academy Awards, of course, aired on only one network.

Preliminary nationals show Saturday’s “Mis America” pageant reversing its downward trend of recent years. The three-hour ABC telecast averaged about 13.5 million viewers, up 7% from last year’s 12.6 million. Still, it’s only about half the audience that watched the event eight years ago. It was the largest aud for ABC on a Saturday since January 2000 and helped the net win the night easily by all key measures.

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