The early days of war in Iraq have witnessed a significant ratings surge for the all-news cable networks, along with a slight increase in overall TV viewing and lesser gains for some channels providing a respite from war coverage.
With their around-the-clock reports, Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC have, not surprisingly, seen their audience expand dramatically -- in some cases tenfold -- versus the corresponding period a year ago since the first bombs fell on Baghdad last Wednesday.
On Sunday, Fox averaged 5.8 million viewers in prime time, followed by CNN's 4.7 million and 2.5 million watching MSNBC -- helping explain the audience drain on this year's Academy Awards telecast, which sank to an all-time low in the percentage of viewers that tuned in.
News viewing remained elevated throughout the weekend, with the gap between ratings leader Fox and CNN reaching its narrowest point on Saturday evening, when the two rivals averaged 4.5 million and 4.4 million viewers, respectively, to MSNBC's 2.2 million.
The news channels had already been experiencing heightened ratings in the buildup to war, with Fox News averaging just under 2 million prime-time viewers since the calendar year began -- due principally to Bill O'Reilly's talk program -- to CNN's 1.4 million and MSNBC's 560,000. Many observers anticipated that CNN would benefit most on a competitive basis in covering the war, due in part to its more expansive presence overseas.
Last week's third most-watched basic cable channel, meanwhile -- ahead of MSNBC -- was Nickelodeon, which averaged 2.8 million viewers in prime time, buoyed by a two-hour block of the animated hit show "SpongeBob SquarePants" that registered more than 7 million viewers Friday. Another channel that caters primarily to children, Cartoon Network, was the fifth most-watched cable network on a total-day basis.
Several lower-rated channels that offered an alternative to war coverage -- which also occupied swaths of time on the major networks -- saw ratings increases, including the Game Show Network and Hallmark Channel.
"There are other networks that seem to be associated with some sort of comfort and reassurance that are doing quite well," said Betsy Frank, executive vice president of research for the MTV Networks, adding that there has been an upswing for channels "that did provide safe havens.... Parents are looking for a safe place."
Nielsen Media Research data indicate that, overall, U.S. TV viewing among adults last week was up about 4% versus the previous four weeks in prime time, driven primarily by higher tune-in for the news channels.
The war has also prompted the major networks to incorporate at least some nightly news presence, but broadcasters have largely stuck with their traditional lineups, as millions of viewers continue to watch their usual diversions.
Ratings on Monday evening, for example, indicate that NBC's stunt show "Fear Factor" attracted 15.6 million viewers, versus 8.7 million people watching ABC's news coverage, which also trailed reruns of the CBS sitcoms "King of Queens" and "Yes, Dear" by a sizable margin.
The networks' nightly newscasts also rose last week, with the "NBC Nightly News" averaging 13.2 million viewers, its biggest audience since the November 2000 election.