And the winners were . . . ABC, Monica Lewinsky and at least in terms of publicity, her publisher.
That's because the Academy Awards arrived a few weeks early for ABC from a ratings standpoint, as Barbara Walters' interview with Lewinsky in advance of the former White House intern's new book drew more than 48 million viewers Wednesday, roughly equivalent to results for recent Oscar telecasts.
Even falling short of Oprah Winfrey's much-hyped interview with Michael Jackson six years ago, the program scored spectacular ratings by current TV standards, ranking as the most-watched news interview (the Jackson chat was not under the aegis of the news division) ever televised on a single network. ABC estimates 74 million people watched at least a portion of the two-hour broadcast.
"This really exceeded our expectations," said Alan Wurtzel, ABC's senior vice president of research and media development. "It really is a huge number. It demonstrates that networks can still accumulate incredibly large audiences. . . . It's nice to see the power that networks still have."
Labeled a special edition of "20/20," the program nearly quadrupled the newsmagazine's average audience this season. That pleased advertisers, some of whom reportedly shelled out between $750,000 and $800,000 for a 30-second commercial, about five times the usual rate.
The interview turned out to be a bit of a bargain from that perspective, with ABC asking $1 million for spots on this year's Oscars; however, some advertisers were said to have been reluctant to be associated with the interview because of its content.
Church & Dwight of Princeton, N.J., took a single ad in the broadcast as part of a new campaign for its Arm & Hammer Dental Care Gum.
"We were quite pleased with the numbers," said Larry Koslow, vice president of marketing, who declined to say how much the company paid for the spot.
"It turned out to be a very economical place to achieve large reach in order to showcase our films," added a marketing executive at Universal Pictures, which placed ads within the program for "October Sky" and the upcoming movies "EDtv" and "Notting Hill."
Airing on the last night of the February rating sweeps, the interview surpassed the combined audience for NBC, CBS and Fox and held its audience for the duration, with only a slight drop at 10:30 p.m. National results were roughly equal to those in major cities, demonstrating wide geographic interest in what Lewinsky had to say.
ABC showed dramatic ratings increases in late night as well, with both "Nightline" and "Politically Incorrect" attracting more than 20% of people watching TV in those hours. The network also used the platform to trumpet upcoming programs, including a wry promo for the miniseries "Cleopatra," which will air in May, linked to its theme of a young woman seducing a world leader.
Locally, KABC-TV totaled more than half of the available audience while televising the interview, which, according to Nielsen Media Research, was seen in more than 1.9 million of the area's 5.1 million homes. The station's "Eyewitness News" devoted nearly its entire newscast to reaction and analysis, covering no other story before switching to weather halfway into the broadcast.
KABC amassed a whopping 43% of those watching television at 11 p.m., tripling its results during February and elevating the station's late-news average by nearly a full ratings point. That could be a boon to ABC stations, which use sweeps to negotiate advertising rates.
Although the interview itself is over, controversy relating to its broadcast will linger at ABC. The network has hired a private investigator to sleuth out who stole an audiotape of the first hour of Walters' three-hour session with Lewinsky and leaked it anonymously to the New York Daily News, which printed extensive excerpts of the interview on Tuesday and Wednesday.
New York City-based Decision Strategies/Fairfax International has been grilling ABC News employees, including senior executives, in an effort to determine who lifted the tape. It's unclear whether New York ratings for "20/20" suffered as a result. New York numbers weren't among the top 10 audiences nationwide, but WABC-TV still posted a hefty 46% share of all New York households watching television.
Although ABC did not pay Lewinsky for the interview, the broadcast served to promote the release of "Monica's Story," a book from which she will receive royalties on each copy sold.
By Thursday afternoon, the book reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 bestseller list of Internet bookseller site Amazon.com. The list is updated hourly, based on a rolling 24-hour period.
"It's a success," said spokesman Paul Capelli. "Though the polls keep saying people are sick of [hearing about Lewinsky], we're seeing something else. If people are tired of hearing about it, they're certainly not tired of reading about it."
Bookstores reported more mixed results, with the book getting off to "a slow start" at the Barnes & Noble in Pasadena and Rizzoli in Beverly Hills, according to representatives, while a manager at Coliseum Books, who declined to give his name, said the midtown Manhattan bookstore had been fielding calls about "Monica's Story" for several days and that the book was "selling well" early Thursday.
ABC also solicited responses to the interview via the Internet, where many viewers seemed more interested in how Lewinsky looked than what she said. One viewer wrote to ask what shade of lipstick Lewinsky had been wearing, and three dozen others soon joined the e-mail chorus clamoring to know her color. Anchors at "Good Morning America" promised to try to answer that question on today's show.
Times staff writers Greg Braxton and Michele Botwin contributed to this story.
NBC Wins Sweeps Stakes: The sweeps ratings are in: NBC beat its rivals thanks to miniseries and a strong Thursday lineup. F35
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How the Monica Lewinsky interview compares to some other recent TV events:
Average audience in millions
Program Viewers Date Super Bowl XXXIII (Fox) 83.7 1/99 "Seinfeld" (NBC) 76.3 5/98 Academy Awards (ABC) 55.3 3/98 Monica Lewinsky interview (ABC) 48.5 3/98 "ER" --live episode (NBC) 42.7 9/97 "Ellen" --coming out (ABC) 36.2 4/97 "ER" --G. Clooney finale (NBC) 35.7 2/99 "Cinderella" (ABC) 34.3 11/97 "Schindler's List" (NBC) 33.1 2/99