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Nets: no news bad news

CNN's primetime viewership down 47%

NEW YORK — The news networks are learning an increase in the prime rate, an earthquake in Turkey and Tiger Woods winning the PGA can’t hold a candle to White House sexual escapades and the McGwire-Sosa home run derby of ’98.

CNN’s household viewership plunged 47% in primetime — and 35% in total day — in August compared to the same period last year. Similarly, MSNBC’s primetime numbers slid by 14%, and its total-day household levels by 12% in the August-to-August comparisons.

By contrast, the Fox News Channel was boasting that its numbers actually went up August-to-August, by 9% in primetime and 16% in total day.

Major story lacking

Spokesmen for CNN and MSNBC said the explanation for their audience declines is that old bugaboo of all-news cable networks: a huge story dominates the headlines the previous year and pumps adrenaline into the Nielsen printouts. A year later, when no story galvanizes the country’s attention, the ratings fall back to the regular levels.

In August ’98, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was heating up — for the first time Clinton admitted to sexual dalliance with the intern — and the country couldn’t get enough of it. As a result, the ratings of CNN, MSNBC and, to a lesser extent, Fox News Channel shot up.