HOLLYWOOD The broadcast networks returned to a more typical mix of programming last week, but viewers continued to search out news programs devoted to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Nearly one week after ending their record-setting four days of continuous news coverage, ABC, CBS and NBC were attracting their biggest crowds with newsmags, while also joining Fox, the WB and UPN in dipping their toes back into the entertainment pool.
There were signs that viewers hungered for something other than news of the attacks, as repeats of favorites like “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The West Wing” drew some of their largest audiences of the summer. But were auds ready to commit to any of the 20 new and 48 returning shows set to bow over the next two weeks?
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Americans turned out in large numbers to watch the nonstop coverage on the four major networks and all-news cablers, according to numbers crunched by Nielsen Media Research.
Nearly 70% of America’s 1.05 million television households were watching TV on the evening of Sept. 11, with TV viewing at an even higher clip in New York (76.3%) and Washington (73.8%). During the past year, only November’s Election Night coverage brought more Americans to their TV sets.
Overall, Nielsen estimates that an average of 79.5 million viewers watched television in primetime on the night.
While the broadcast nets remained the runaway choice for viewers on Sept. 11, the night was certainly a ratings boon to the all-news cablers, each of which saw tremendous surges. CNN, for example, which had averaged just 808,000 viewers the night before, shot up to 7.7 million on Sept. 11; Fox News went from 795,000 to 4.4 million; and MSNBC from 338,000 to 2.4 million.
The week of Sept. 10-16 would become the top-rated in Fox News Channel’s history and the second highest on CNN (behind only the start of the Gulf War in the early ’90s).
The combined audience for the four broadcast nets and five cablers that went commercial-free for four days gradually declined, though — going from about 75 million on Sept. 11, to 54.8 million on Sept. 12, then to 52.8 million on Sept. 13 and 39.5 million on Sept. 14.
And after one week of coverage, CNN’s primetime audience (5.21 million) was down by 46% from the previous Wednesday (Sept. 12), while Fox News (2.08 million) was off by 33%, MSNBC (1.09 million) by 59%, CNBC (798,000) by 30% and Headline News (684,000) by 45%.
Viewers appeared to prefer to get their news in one-hour chunks on the broadcast nets, as newsmags dominated last week. Grabbing the largest auds were a trio of CBS entries: “60 Minutes II” on Sept. 19 (14.4 million viewers), “60 Minutes” on Sept. 16 (14.3 million) and “48 Hours” on Sept. 18 (12.8 million).
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Sprinkled in among the newsmags and entertainment offerings deemed “safe” and “appropriate” were a pair of reality series on CBS, “The Amazing Race” and “Big Brother 2.”
Both returned to the lineup after a two-week hiatus to strong numbers, a comforting sign for network programmers who feared that the unscripted fare deemed as “reality” would seem trivial in light of the terrorist attacks.
Surprisingly, quiz shows did not fare as well, as ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and NBC’s “Weakest Link” slipped to summer-low audience levels opposite newsmags.
The only scripted series to bow last week, CBS werewolf drama “Wolf Lake,” finished behind the network pack on Sept. 19, averaging about 9 million viewers.