Obama’s victory draws more than 71 million viewers, a record audience

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Barack Obama’s historic win of the presidency Tuesday night captured the attention of more than 71 million television viewers, a record audience for a presidential election, capping an election season that saw interest in political news reach new heights.

Nearly a quarter of all television viewers in the United States watched the results come in between 5 and 8 p.m. PST on 14 networks, far outstripping the number who tuned in for the last two presidential elections, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In 2004, 59.2 million people watched President Bush defeat Sen. John Kerry. Four years earlier, about 61.6 million viewers followed the coverage of the matchup between Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore.

Nielsen’s measurement does not include all the networks that carried the election coverage; PBS, C-SPAN and other cable networks were not counted in the ratings.


The winning network of the night was ABC, whose anchor trio of Charles Gibson, Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos drew an average of 13.13 million viewers, the most of any broadcast or cable channel.

It marked the first time since 1996 that ABC has gotten the largest audience on a presidential election night and comes as Gibson is locked in a tight battle with NBC’s Brian Williams for the crown of top-rated evening news anchor.

ABC News President David Westin credited the network’s win to its determination to “make it about the story, not about us.”

And on a night when the networks loaded up on technological tricks like holograms and virtual graphics, he noted that ABC “used technology in the service of substance, not for its own sake, which helped.”

It remains to be seen whether ABC’s victory will pay dividends for “World News,” its flagship evening broadcast. So far this season, the newscast has averaged 7.95 million viewers, down 2% from last season, while “NBC Nightly News” is up slightly with an average of 8.06 million. “CBS Evening News” trails with 6.04 million viewers.

“I think it helps any network to have a lot of people see their anchor in this setting, and you would think it would help in the long run, but I don’t think we’ll see an immediate effect,” said Westin, adding that he views election coverage as a public service more than a competitive tool.

Aside from ABC’s win, this year’s election night viewership underscored the growing strength of the cable news networks, which have seen their audiences surge during the presidential campaign. On Tuesday, CNN –- which showcased some of the flashiest technology of the night -- drew the second-largest audience in prime time, with 12.3 million viewers. That was 98% more than tuned into CNN’s 2004 election coverage and the biggest viewership in the network’s 28-year history.

NBC took third place with 12.02 million viewers, down 18% from four years ago, while Fox News followed with 9.04 million viewers, up 12%.

Despite the positive buzz CBS anchor Katie Couric attracted this fall for her political interviews, her election night special lagged behind the competitors, pulling in just 7.83 million viewers, a decline of 14% from four years ago.

MSNBC followed with 5.89 million viewers, but enjoyed the biggest gains of any network –- a spike of 108% over 2004. The Fox broadcast network placed last with 5.14 million viewers.

-- Matea Gold