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TV getting back to biz and blurbs

News specs nab top ratings, lead by '60 Minutes'

The broadcast nets returned to a semblance of normal programming over the weekend, although news specials outdrew entertainment offerings.

According to preliminary nationals from Nielsen, the weekend’s most-watched programs were Sunday’s “60 Minutes” on CBS (14 million), a two-hour news special on NBC (11.3m) and a one-hour ABC news spec (10.6m) — all focusing exclusively on last week’s terrorist attacks. Fox also did well Saturday with a two-hour “America’s Most Wanted” special on the attacks (prelim 9.4m).

The NBC and ABC news specs and “America’s Most Wanted” aired without commercials. Various estimates put the total loss of advertising revenues to the networks at upwards of $600 million over the six-day period since Sept. 11. And with the U.S. economy headed into a possible recession, it could be well into 2002 before the networks get their ad rates back to where they were before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But commercial breaks were back across the board Monday. The nightly newscasts on the Big Three broadcast nets were taking commercial spots, as were “Dateline NBC” at 8 p.m. and a 10 p.m. news special on ABC. The ABC spec was one of the programs substituting for the canceled “Monday Night Football” game between Minnesota and Baltimore.

Most of the nets’ weekend attempts to offer up diversions in the form of light, inoffensive entertainment programming (“Touched by an Angel,” “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” made-for repeat “Growing Up Brady”) met with relatively meek ratings. The only entertainment program that really clicked was Fox’s repeat of theatrical “Mrs. Doubtfire” (10 million), which gained viewers throughout the night.

Sunday night’s viewing patterns offered a good example of what auds were looking for: At 7, “60 Minutes” (prelim 14 million) led the way, but NBC’s news special on the terrorist attacks (9.5m) was a solid second and then dominated at 8 o’clock with the second of its two hours (11.3m). Without any news programs at 9, auds then went for laughs by turning over to the final hour of “Mrs. Doubtfire” (12.2m) before checking out ABC’s 10 p.m. news spec (10.6m).

Overall, Nielsen estimates that roughly 37.2 million viewers watched the broadcast nets on Sunday (up from the previous week’s 35.6 million), with the spike primarily attributed to the extra news coverage. Saturday’s estimated 28.8 million viewers on the major nets was down slightly vs. the previous week.

Nielsen has also issued estimates for cumulative primetime viewing of news coverage on Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, 54.8 million people watched an average minute of primetime on the four broadcast nets (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) and five news cablers (CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNN Headline News and CNBC), while Thursday drew roughly 52.8 million.

Nearly 80 million people watched in primetime on Tuesday, the day of the attacks.

(John Dempsey in New York contributed to this report.)

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