Election night draws record viewership of 71 million

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Gold is a Times staff writer.

President-elect Barack Obama’s historic win Tuesday night captured the attention of a record 71 million television viewers, a fitting conclusion to a presidential campaign 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, outstripping the 61.6 million people who tuned into the 2000 election returns, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The winning network in prime time 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 came as Gibson was locked in a tight battle with NBC’s Brian Williams to be the 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.”

On a night when the networks loaded up on flashy features 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. 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.

“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 primarily as a public service.

Aside from ABC’s win, Tuesday’s television ratings underscored the growing strength of the cable news networks, which have seen their audiences surge during the 2008 campaign.


During prime time, CNN -- which showcased some of the most advanced technology of the night -- drew the second-largest audience, with 12.3 million viewers. That was 98% more than tuned in to CNN’s 2004 election coverage and the biggest viewership in the network’s 28-year history.

Between 5 and 9:30 p.m., which included Sen. John McCain’s concession speech and Obama’s victory address, CNN was the most-watched network overall, drawing 13.3 million viewers.

In prime time, the cable channel beat NBC, which took third place with 12.02 million viewers, down 18% from four years ago. 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.