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Chung-Condit talk scores

Interview most watched program since May 17's 'ER'

HOLLYWOOD — ABC, continuing its streak of nabbing hot newsmaker interviews — this time Thursday’s Connie Chung chat with Rep. Gary Condit on “PrimeTime Live” — attracted the largest audience for any program this summer and the biggest crowd for any newsmag in 2-1/2 years.

Cable auds also were caught up in the Condit wave, with Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC all scoring triple-digit growth in both ratings and adults 25-54 from the same night last year.

According to Nielsen, an average of 23.7 million viewers watched Chung’s ABC interview with Condit, making it the most-watched program on television since the season finale of NBC’s “ER” on May 17 (30.72m) and ABC’s top draw since the Academy Awards on March 25 (42.94m).

“PrimeTime” dominated its time period, more than doubling its average turnout this summer (10.2 million) and topping the combined audience of NBC (repeat “ER”) and CBS (NFL preseason football) by more than 10 million viewers.

On the cable side, FNC averaged a 1.2 rating (834,000 households), and CNN came in at a 0.9 rating (707,000 households) in the time periods from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Aug. 23. MSNBC managed a 0.4 rating (261,000 households), doubling the rating it earned last year on Aug. 23. The net didn’t jump on the Condit story the way its rivals did, focusing on it only during the hourlong “News With Brian Williams” at 8 and midnight.

The best individual-series numbers for the night among the three 24-hour cable news nets were CNN’s “Larry King Live” at 9 p.m. and FNC’s “The O’Reilly Factor” at 11 p.m., each of which racked up a 1.6 rating.

Larry King’s show easily beat FNC’s “Hannity & Colmes” at 9. But instead of slotting its usual repeat at midnight, “Hannity & Colmes” did the show live so its stars could react to the Chung-Condit interview. That decision allowed “Hannity & Colmes” to beat its two rivals in the Nielsens, averaging a 1.2 rating at midnight.

Bill Shine, national executive producer of FNC, said the cable-news numbers were remarkable “considering that it’s the middle of August,” usually a dead period in the Nielsens.

ABC newsmags can now lay claim to attracting the largest single-subject interview auds during each of the past three seasons, each with a different Alphabet anchor asking the questions.

The previous season’s top newsmag interview audience came in May 2000, when 19.18 million watched Diane Sawyer’s “20/20” visit with Michael J. Fox following his final appearance as a regular on “Spin City.” And in March 1999, a whopping 48.5 million viewers watched Barbara Walters’ “20/20” interview with Monica Lewinsky.

Oddly, this is the second straight year that the summer’s most-watched program has aired on Aug. 23. One year ago, the first edition of CBS’ “Survivor” wrapped on this date before an average of 51.7 million viewers.

(John Dempsey contributed to this report.)

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