The all-news networks saw their ratings rise dramatically
with continuous coverage of the Kennedy-Bessette deaths, as MSNBC and Fox News Channel
reached new viewership highs.
In fact, coverage of the deadly plane crash involving John
F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lauren Bessette accounted for five of the
top-10-rated cable programs for the week of July 12 through 18, according to Nielsen Media
Research data supplied by Turner Entertainment Research.
Cable News Network had four of those five top cablecasts.
Its coverage of the July 18 afternoon news conference held by the U.S. Coast Guard and the
National Transportation Safety Board ranked No. 4 for the week with a 5.3 rating, or just
over 4 million households.
Cable really saw its viewership jump after the broadcast
networks returned to their regularly scheduled programming July 19, one day after the
disappearance of Kennedy's plane was first reported by the media. The 24-hour news
channels stayed on the dime and did round-the-clock reports throughout the week.
"Those who are interested in staying with a story like
this are likely to turn to one of the cable-news networks," said Bill Carroll,
director of programming at rep firm Katz Television. "And it was a relatively slow
news cycle last week. This was the logical thing to happen."
Even some entertainment networks -- including Fox Family
Channel, Lifetime Television, A&E Network and The History Channel -- were prompted by
the tragedy to air special programming on the Kennedy family and Kennedy Jr.
In fact, in a highly unusual move, Lifetime ran live news
updates July 17 on the plane's disappearance -- breaks that were supplied by the network's
corporate sibling, ABC News.
Cable's round-the-clock coverage raised a debate in some
journalistic circles as to whether the story warranted that kind of attention, or whether
it was another case of media overkill -- a charge levied about the Princess Diana coverage
on cable. But the news channels defended their news judgment on the Kennedy crash.
MSNBC racked up a 1.5 total-day rating, or 767,000
households, July 18, the day after news broke that the plane was missing. That's a
slightly lower rating than the 1.7 the network got for Princess Diana's funeral Sept. 6,
1997, but the crash reached more households. On the day of Diana's funeral, MSNBC averaged
FNC did its best total-day rating ever that same Sunday,
July 18, garnering a 1.2 rating or 504,000 households. That was a 500 percent ratings
increase compared with what the network had been averaging for July to date.
Nonetheless, CNN was still the ratings champion with its
coverage. For July 17 and 18, CNN averaged a 2.2 rating for total-day, or 1.6 million
households. From July 17 through 20, CNN averaged a 1.6 rating in total day, a 382 percent
increase over July to date before that. MSNBC was up 505 percent and FNC was up 315
Broadcast coverage of search efforts also shifted several
sports events to cable networks. ABC moved its coverage of the British Open golf
tournament that Saturday to sister service ESPN and its Major League Soccer All-Star Game
telecast to ESPN2.
NBC, meanwhile, bumped a Ladies Professional Golf
Association tournament and a Women's National Basketball Association game to CNBC.
News that Kennedy's plane, also carrying his wife and
sister-in-law, was missing broke the morning CNN made its presentation at the Television
Critics Association tour in Pasadena, Calif.
At the session, CNN/U.S. president Rick Kaplan was asked if
his network would continue wall-to-wall coverage even if there was nothing new on the
"The problem with 'even if there's no news' is that we
don't know when news will be breaking," Kaplan said. "There are always little
facts that are coming out here and there."
Another writer then asked, "What is it about this
particular man that is justifying the most coverage since -- probably since -- Princess
Kaplan replied, "If you're an all-news network -- I'm
not going to speak for other networks -- but this story certainly speaks for itself, and I
don't think I have to explain why it's wall-to-wall coverage."
Last Tuesday in New York, Kaplan said CNN would stay with
continuous coverage "until there's resolution. We'll move on when there's some
closure I need closure on this story myself."
FNC also defended its ongoing reporting on the story.
"We identified early on that this is a unique American
tragedy," FNC vice president of news gathering Brian Jones said. "People
identified with the tragic nature of this accident."
He noted that FNC had the first news crew to go to
Kennedy's and Bessette's lower Manhattan apartment building, and it captured the first
flowers being lain at the doorstep by well-wishers. Jones added that 24-hour news channels
such as FNC helped people to mourn the three deaths and "gives them a camera to the
He expected FNC to continue its extensive coverage until
after memorials for the trio were held.
MSNBC general manager Erik Sorenson said that while his
network has been doing "heavy" coverage of the crash and its aftermath, he
wouldn't characterize it as continual, adding that other news has been covered during that
period. But he said the "heavy" coverage has been appropriate.
"I personally have been amazed at the level of
interest in this story," Sorenson said, referring to phone calls, e-mail, chat-room
activity and Web-site hits MSNBC received. "This is a series of events that people
relate to, mysteriously. It touches us."
He expected the massive coverage to end after the Kennedy
and Bessette memorial services this past weekend.
In terms of the entertainment networks, Lifetime not only
aired news breaks on the first day of the Kennedy plane's disappearance, but it also ran a
special on Kennedy that Sunday: a three-year-old Intimate Portrait episode on
Kennedy that had been "significantly updated" by ABC News, a Lifetime
Last Monday (July 19), Fox Family aired The Kennedys: A
Century of Service, a tribute from its Famous Families series.
That same night, History aired The Kennedy Legacy: An
Interview with John F. Kennedy Jr. The next night, the network ran Special
Presentation: History Center, John F. Kennedy Jr. Remembered.
And History's sister service, A&E, aired a full week of
Kennedy-member episodes of Biography last week under the banner, "The
Kennedys: Triumph and Tragedy."