A variety of cable networks, and not only the all-news
channels, cashed in and posted ratings gains by airing President Clinton's grand jury
testimony last week.
Programming services ranging from the usual suspects --
Cable News Network, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and C-SPAN -- to Courtroom Television Network
and America's Voice all aired the videotape of Clinton's grilling live and
unedited last Monday.
While CNN and FNC were among the biggest ratings gainers,
even Court TV saw a bump up in audience. Its broadcast of Clinton's testimony
delivered four times the legal network's usual daytime audience, officials said last
CNN, in a particularly strong showing, outperformed ABC
with its televising of the Clinton testimony. CNN posted a 4.1 national rating, or 4.1
million households, according to Nielsen Media Research, while ABC only did a 3.3 rating.
Cable-network officials are hoping that they will continue
to see a lift from coverage of the Clinton controversy and thereafter. But some skeptics
maintained that the all-news networks will have a tough, if not impossible, time retaining
any audience that they attract when major news events are not breaking.
Referring to cable's ratings increases last week,
Steve Sternberg, senior vice president of TN Media, said, "Long-term, it has
virtually no importance ... People go back to their old viewing habits."
All in all, cable programmers were gleeful about the grand
jury ratings bonanza and about the fact that it interrupted the kickoff of
broadcast's new fall season, as well as new syndicated shows. Viewers were tuning in
to cable when the "Big Four" were trying to spotlight and showcase their new
shows, according to Robert Sieber, vice president of audience development for Turner
Broadcasting System Inc.
"We're seeing a disruption of viewing, with
people sampling cable," Sieber said. "And that helps cable. It makes it more
difficult for the broadcast networks to launch their new season. There was a spillover of
Clinton coverage into primetime."
According to Nielsen, overall TV coverage of the Clinton
testimony did an 18.8 U.S. household rating, or 18.6 million homes. CNN's 4.1
national rating [5.5 in its own universe] was nine times higher than usual for that time
period, a CNN spokesman said. CNN earned a 2.2 rating in its universe for the total day,
or 1.7 million homes -- its highest-rated day so far this year.
MSNBC scored a 1.1 total U.S. rating (2.5 in its cable
universe), in 1 million homes, for its airing of the Clinton tape, which was seven times
its ratings for that time period in August, an MSNBC spokeswoman said.
FNC saw a whopping increase, drawing a 0.6 total U.S.
rating (2.0 in its cable universe), or 669,000 homes, when it normally averages a 0.2
rating, or 61,000 households, in its cable universe in that time period. FNC tallied its
best total-day ratings ever last Monday, with a 0.8 rating and 259,000 homes.
While CNBC didn't air the grand jury testimony, it did
update the story every 15 minutes last Monday. For the total day, CNBC posted a 0.5
rating, or 328,000 homes, which was a 7 percent increase over its ratings to date in the
third quarter, a CNBC spokesman said.
CNN's strong numbers last Monday, beating ABC, showed
that "When it's a time of great breaking news, CNN becomes the channel of
choice," said Jonathan Sims, vice president of research for the Cabletelevision
A number of the news channels said they expected to retain
some of the audience that they gained last week. For one, more viewers were exposed to
promotions for programming on the all-news channels when they tuned in.
"It really does give people a chance to revisit CNN
programming," said Sieber, adding that the Monica Lewinsky-Clinton scandal isn't
"If everything ended today, there might not be much
[audience] carryover," Sieber said. "But that's not the case."
FNC also predicted that it will keep some of the audience
that checked out the network last week.
"The key for a new channel is to get people to
sample," FNC senior vice president Chet Collier said. "Obviously, you don't
keep them all. But you do keep a large percentage. Our ratings take another step up."
In contrast, Robin Garfield, MSNBC's vice president of
research, asserted that her network is the only all-news outlet that has consistently
retained audience after a big news event.
As an example, she cited MSNBC's viewership growth
after its blanket coverage of Princess Diana's death a year ago. Even in the fourth
quarter last year, MSNBC's total-day ratings were still double its numbers prior to
Diana's death, Garfield said.
Sieber, however, disputed Garfield's claims, saying
that quarterly Nielsen figures don't support her assertions about MSNBC's
All-news networks aren't the only channels that will
offer additional Clinton coverage this week.
Nickelodeon will run Nick News Special Edition: The
Clinton Crisis, hosted by Linda Ellerbee and NBC anchor Katie Couric. The primetime
special will explore the Clinton probe from kids' perspective. And The History
Channel will rebroadcast 25 hours of the 1974 House Judiciary Committee hearings into the
possible impeachment of President Nixon.
Basic cable posted a stellar performance during the
just-ended 1997-98 season, scoring its highest-ever primetime-viewership levels, the CAB
said last week. Cable's average primetime U.S. household delivery was 21.9 million
homes, up 14 percent from the prior season. Cable's ratings rose 13 percent, to 22.3.