Without backdrop, auds tune out Prez

Speech still manages ratings win

Without the drama of a breaking sex scandal or an ongoing impeachment trial, President Clinton’s State of the Union Address on Thursday plunged to lowest-ever Nielsens, down 12 million viewers from last year’s results.

Still, the average 31.48 million who watched the president’s speech on a total of seven broadcast and cable channels made Clinton the night’s Nielsen champ, beating the 29.55 million earned by the night’s most-watched one-net telecast, ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Last year, in the midst of the impeachment trial, Clinton’s address averaged 43.5 million viewers, and two years ago, with the Lewinsky scandal just breaking, the speech attracted 53.1 million. Clinton’s biggest State of the Union audience came with his first try in 1993 — 66.9 million, more than twice the numbers for last Thursday’s address.

With its “Millionaire” millions leading into the speech, ABC enjoyed the biggest State of the Union audience, 11.54 million, followed by NBC’s 9.41 million and CBS’ 5.28 million.

Among the cable news channels, CNN led the way, as usual, with 1.25 million total viewers. Fox News Channel took second from MSNBC, 330,000 viewers to 240,000.

With each of the Big Four broadcast nets covering the speech, the netlets flourished. “WWF Smackdown!” (8.06 million viewers, 3.1/8 in adults 18-49) set another UPN Thursday total-viewer record. Over at the WB, “Popular” (4.31 million, 1.7/4 in adults 18-49) set series records, despite competing with regular fare in the 8-9 p.m. hour. Airing vs. the speech at 9 p.m., “Charmed” (7.48 million, 3.4/9 in adults 18-49) conjured up its second-biggest audience to date, plus a record 5.3 rating in households.

In the hour before Clinton’s address, “Millionaire” (29.55 million, 9.3/24) continued to roll over NBC’s rerun sitcoms, though “Friends” (16.14 million, 8.0/21 in adults 18-49) nipped “Millionaire” head-to-head in adults 18-49.

(Paula Bernstein contributed to this report.)