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TV Ratings Dip Sharply From 2000

Times Staff Writers

Broadcast news executives have been criticized for limiting their prime-time television convention coverage to a total of three hours per network this week. But with ratings for Monday night’s Democratic gathering down sharply from 2000, the public evidently doesn’t mind.

Even with the star power of former President Clinton, who delivered a speech Monday, the convention coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC (airing from 7 to 8 p.m.) mustered fewer than 14 million viewers combined, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. ABC (4.4 million viewers) and NBC (4.5 million) were each off roughly 24% compared with the first night of the Democratic National Convention four years ago. Figures were not available for PBS or C-SPAN, which also carried convention coverage.

Network executives tried to put the best face on the results.

“These [ratings] are for Day One of the convention,” said NBC News President Neal Shapiro, who speculated that the lower numbers may be attributed to viewers’ familiarity with Clinton. “The real measures will be how well John Edwards does on Wednesday and John Kerry on Thursday.”

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But there was at least one beneficiary of the networks’ decline: the cable news industry. CNN led from 5 to 8 p.m. Monday, averaging 2 million viewers (up 11% compared with 2000), followed by Fox News Channel (1.6 million, up 280%) and MSNBC (1.1 million, up 74%). The gains were especially high for Fox because of its distribution gains and overall ratings growth in the last four years.

Although cable has been making inroads on broadcast TV for years, the networks’ relatively poor showing still came as something of a surprise. Some network executives had been cautiously optimistic that, given the extensive coverage for recent political films such as “Fahrenheit 9/11" and Americans’ reportedly high level of interest in the current campaign, ratings would improve from 2000.

ABC News President David Westin said he took heart in the number of viewers who came to the networks despite cable’s heavy spending on promotion. “It shows the broadcast networks have something to offer that the cable networks still don’t,” he said.

Even so, “there is certainly nothing in the numbers that makes me wish that we had put on more than one hour” Monday night, Westin added.

“Very, very, very few people are actually watching the convention,” said Kenneth M. Goldstein, a political communications expert at the University of Wisconsin. “People like reality TV, and they like sports and they like surprises. There’s not much surprising going on anymore at conventions. There’s no news. It’s one long infomercial.”

Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.


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