CNN pulled in a near-record number of viewers with its first week of coverage of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The network finished first among all cable nets for the Sept. 10-16 frame, harvesting a 3.6 rating in primetime, which translates into 3.07 million cable and satellite households. That’s more than 1 million homes (and more than a full rating point) ahead of the second-place Fox News Channel. The only time in its history that CNN did better was in February 1991 during the early weeks of the Gulf War.
In a breakdown supplied by CNN parent Turner Broadcasting, the 39 highest-rated individual programs for the week — covering full 24-hour days — were all tied to CNN’s coverage of what it called “Attack on America.” But the definition of each program came from CNN’s daily reports to Nielsen, which included 13 titles of less than 30 minutes in duration.
Calling CNN’s coverage “brilliant,” Tom Wolzien, media analyst for Sanford Bernstein, cited in a report to clients “the fast-off-the-mark news coverage, camera power … coupled with the no-nonsense anchoring of Judy Woodruff and balanced sensitivity of Aaron Brown.”
Wolzien said the swollen ratings reinforced CNN’s image as the network many cable subscribers turn to first when a major crisis dominates the news. CNN’s supremacy extended to the total-day weekly ratings, which the network won with a 2.7, good for 2.28 million households. Fox News finished a distant, but impressive, second in total day, averaging a 1.7 rating for the week, encompassing 1.19 million homes.
MSNBC, which also provided non-stop coverage of the terrorist story, finished with its best weekly performance ever, a 2.0 rating (1.37 million homes), which put it in a tie for third in primetime with Lifetime. MSNBC also tied for third with Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite in total day, averaging a 1.3 rating (890,000 homes).
Wolzien said CNN’s daunting challenge is to stop its ratings from tumbling to unacceptably low levels when crises begin to abate and things start getting back to normal.