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Viewers cast vote for ABC

Fox News benches key talent during vote

Democrats aren’t the only ones who had a big night.

The public voted, and ABC and CNN came up big winners in the Election Night Nielsen ratings.

ABC benefited from a scheduling gambit that gave Charles Gibson a whopping “Dancing With the Stars” lead-in for his election special Tuesday.

CNN capitalized on liberal interest in the brewing landslide and vaulted into a neck-and-neck race with its nemesis, Fox News Channel. Fox still won the popular vote in primetime but had to concede the key 25-54 demographic to CNN.

ABC started its Election Night coverage a half-hour before the network competition, pre-empting the struggling sitcom “Help Me Help You” in order to tap a monster “Dancing” lead-in.

That strategy paid off as Gibson drew 9.7 million viewers in the 10 p.m. hour. In a surprise, NBC’s Brian Williams came in a distant second with 7 million on Election Night after winning handily at 6:30.

CBS’ Katie Couric, in her first Election Night test, came in third with 6.31 million viewers, a big dropoff from 12 million viewers who watched the last half-hour of “The Unit.”

With “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” NBC gave Williams the weakest lead-in of the three, and he finished well below predecessor Tom Brokaw’s 2002 midterm tally of 8 million viewers, which led the night four years ago.

That night CBS’ Dan Rather drew 7.3 million, a number that would have beaten Couric on Tuesday. ABC’s Peter Jennings had 6.8 million, well below Gibson’s pull, but that was a few years before ABC’s primetime turnaround and NBC’s primetime stumble.

It was also a year when the president’s support was very strong in both houses of Congress.

In a sign of how significant lead-ins were to the results, NBC fared far better earlier in the evening when “Nightly News With Brian Williams” led with 10.94 million viewers compared to ABC’s “World News Tonight With Charles Gibson” with 9.23 million and CBS’ “Evening News With Katie Couric” with 8.13 million.

(On Wednesday NBC extended “Nightly News With Brian Williams” to an hour from 6:30 until 7:30 p.m. in most markets to cover the impact of the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.)

Overall, 23 million watched election coverage on one of the three broadcast nets at 10 p.m., a slight increase over the 22 million who tuned in four years ago, according to Nielsen Media Research.

But network gains were paltry next to those enjoyed by cable, which saw healthy viewer increases over 2002 in part due to the competitive nature of the races and the question of whether the Dems could take the House or Senate.

In total viewers, Fox was up 12% in primetime with an average of 3.06 million. CNN, up 21%, was a close second with 2.97 million. MSNBC, which more than doubled its primetime aud over 2002, finished third with 1.95 million.

In the 25-54 demo, CNN took a narrow win with 1.33 million compared to Fox’s 1.25 million. As is typical in primetime cable news ratings, MSNBC was close to CNN in the demo, averaging 893,000.

Unlike CNN and MSNBC, which deployed all normal primetime anchors for election coverage, Fox News Channel benched its three most popular personalities — Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren — in favor of a team of reporters and analysts led by Brit Hume.

With Hume at the helm, Fox took a conservative approach in calling the races, at times chiding its competitors for putting too much faith in exit poll data, which analyst Michael Barone said exaggerated Democratic voting between 6% and 8%.

On the entertainment side, Nielsen delayed the release of Tuesday nationals until today due to election-related glitches, but the top performers in the affiliate-based prelims were Fox’s “House” (6.8 rating/16 share in adults 18-49, 15.9 million viewers overall) and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” from 8 to 9:30 (5.7/14 in 18-49, 21.2 million).

Another standout was CBS drama “NCIS” (4.2/11, 15.7 million), which appeared to hit a season high in 18-49.

And on cable, FX’s 10 p.m. drama “Nip/Tuck” (2.1/6 in 18-49, 3.91m) seemed to benefit from election coverage on the broadcast nets, rising 15% week to week.

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

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