Numbers beat previous presidential debates

CNN’s “hard news” rep took a hit, but Paris Hilton brought in the viewers, as her exclusive tell-all with Larry King drew 3.2 million viewers — more than triple King’s regular average.

Ratings for the Paris edition of “Larry King Live” exceeded those for CNN’s last two presidential debates. CNN drew 2.78 million for its debate between the Democratic contenders and 2.05 million for its Republican debate, earlier in June.

“Someone said this is the second biggest guest you can get in the world,” King told “Entertainment Tonight.” “The first would be Osama Bin Laden. Now, what is that saying about us?”

King landed the Hilton interview after an embarrassing behind-the-scenes auction in which NBC trumped ABC’s Barbara Walters by offering the Hilton family close to $1 million for a production deal that would include an interview on “Today” and “NBC Dateline.”

Walters, who acted as something of a family confidante during Hilton’s incarceration, believed she’d landed the exclusive and was incensed to learn ABC News had been outbid by NBC. ABC News had agreed to pay close to $100,000 to license family photos and video for a primetime “20/20″ special, with ABC execs characterizing the sum as a reasonable license fee.

When NBC’s offer became public, the Hiltons backtracked and tried to accept Walters’ initial offer, but she declined. NBC News said it stopped pursuing a Hilton interview as well, so Hilton turned to King, who offers a smaller audience but a gentle stop on the celebrity rehab circuit.

CNN exhaustively promoted King’s “get,” including a countdown clock during “Paula Zahn Now” in the preceding hour. Afterwards Anderson Cooper showed his contempt for the story but nevertheless enlisted a panel to “analyze” what had just transpired. “We can’t be above the news of the moment,” he said at the top of “Anderson Cooper 360.”

Telecast was King’s highest-rated since 2005 but only his 53rd highest-rated in 10 years at CNN, according to Nielsen Media Research. Some 1.4 million adults 25-54 demo tuned in for Hilton, more than three times King’s regular average.

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