71.5 Million Tune in to Election Night

Rash Report: 21% More Than Watched Bush/Kerry in '04

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Last night voters didn't just make history on their voting machine touch-screens. They did it as viewers on their TV screens as well. A total of 71.5 million viewers (ages 2 and older) watched the electrifying election coverage of the first African-American man to win the presidency, which was a 21% increase over prime-time coverage of President George W. Bush's 2004 reelection and a 16% rise over his win in 2000.
On network TV, ABC replaced NBC as the broadcast news operation with the highest rating.
On network TV, ABC replaced NBC as the broadcast news operation with the highest rating. Credit: ABC

The sum of those watching vote counting was the highest-rated election event of the year among viewers ages 2 and up, topping even the vice presidential debate, which was watched by 69.9 million over 11 broadcast and cable networks as well as the three presidential debate average of 57.4 million.

And these just aren't politically transformative times. Media milestones were achieved as well. The Big Four networks equaled a 23.1 household prime-time rating, which is a 16% loss from John Kerry's loss to Mr. Bush four years ago. Cable news, conversely, which bet big that campaign 2008 could rival reality TV as the season's most compelling drama, was up 50% in household prime-time ratings from four years ago, for a 15.3.

On network TV, ABC replaced NBC as the broadcast news operation with the highest rating, delivering an 8.0 household rating, holding on to 96% of its 2004 returns. Both NBC and CBS lost about a quarter of their household ratings from four years ago. NBC dropped to second place with a 7.2 in households, while CBS finished third with a 4.8. The Fox broadcast channel was even with 2004, delivering a 3.1, which was only 59% of the 5.2 on cable's Fox News Channel last night.

The network pecking order suggests that the late Tim Russert is not just missed personally but professionally, as he was the political equivalent of an election night John Madden -- rumpled, accessible and excitable but, most important, authoritative.

And even though CBS finished third, anchor Katie Couric raised her profile the most of any broadcast journalist this year with her devastating interview of GOP vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Historians will look back on election 2008 as a night when diversity became unity, as a minority was elected by a majority, making the gorgeous mosaic of America the new version of the melting pot. The same could be said about the campaign coverage, as the media meta-narrative is one of broadcast and cable news networks (let alone entertainment and Spanish-language networks, with BBC America, BET, TV One, WGN, Univision and Telemundo, which combined for a 3.1 household rating) melding into one.

Politically, President-elect Obama repeated his refrain of "not the red states of America, not the blue states of America, but the United States of America."

If he were analyzing the media landscape as well as the political one, he might recall that winning the Oprah primary was as important as winning the Oklahoma one and that Tina Fey may have better exit-poll ratings than the candidate she mercilessly mimicked, Ms. Palin.

So looking at the blur between politics and pop culture, broadcast and cable news ratings, he might be able to substitute his "states" metaphor for a media one, in that we are watching not broadcast, not cable, not entertainment and not news, but just TV.

Wednesday: After watching NBC's cool electoral map in the cold Rockefeller Center Ice and CNN's hologram interviews, watch the less flashy -- but more sustentative -- "News Hour With Jim Lehrer" for analysis of what the election all meant.
Thursday: Miss the election already? NBC offers TV tapering off with NBC's "30 Rock," which features the campaign's essential entertainment figure, Tina Fey, but as lead character Liz Lemon, not Sarah Palin.

First came the election, which was transformative. Now comes the transition, which is a wonk's version of a fantasy football draft. How many viewers will still watch the Obama drama unfold?

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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)

John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.
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