Returns In: Fox Edges CNN

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The Democrats barely nipped the Republicans in the final tally for the Senate — and Fox News Channel narrowly topped the pack in primetime with the most viewers on election night.

But it was CNN which scored the highest among viewers between 25 and 54 years old, while MSNBC on Nov. 7 racked up the biggest gains in both measures.

Together, cable’s news networks staked out a sizable increase in average viewing, versus broadcast networks.

Fox News Channel averaged 3.05 million total viewers in primetime, versus 2.96 million for CNN. That compared with 2.74 million for Fox News on election-night 2002 (Nov. 5) and 2.46 million for CNN, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

For its part, MSNBC averaged 1.93 million viewers, just about 1 million more than the 940,000 viewers who watched that network’s coverage of the 2002 midterm election.

On the broadcast beat, ABC set the pace averaging 8.4 million viewers in the 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. hour, versus 7 million for NBC and 6.3 million for CBS.

However, ABC’s count jumped to 9.7 million viewers when its preceding half hour of coverage was calculated. ABC got the jump on its competitors and benefited from the most-watched lead-in of the night — 21.2 million Dancing With the Stars viewers.

During the 2002 midterm elections, Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC combined to average 6 million viewers in primetime, according to Nielsen Media Research data. With nearly 8 million collectively, the cable news networks improved their take considerably during the most recent election night.

Among adults 25 to 54, CNN wound up atop the demographic ballot. The network averaged 1.33 million of those sought-after viewers, compared with 1.25 million for Fox News. Four years earlier, there were 1.03 million among that viewer precinct for Fox News and 991,000 for CNN. Again, MSNBC recorded the biggest percentage advance, more than doubling its total to 879,000 from 424,000 on Nov. 5, 2002.

With the news the following day centering on confirmation of the results giving Jim Webb a narrow triumph over incumbent George Allen, which also gave Democrats a majority in the Senate, CNN cited Nielsen data showing it won two-thirds of the hours among all viewers on Nov. 8 and the vast majority of those time periods among adults 25 to 54.

Fox News, though, still won in primetime, averaging 2.05 million viewers, compared with 1.86 million for CNN and 843,666 for MSNBC.

“It’s not surprising, given that it was a liberal night with the Democrats moving toward sweeping both Houses. One might have thought CNN could have done a bit better,” said an executive at one of the news networks. “The news the next day was all about the Democrats, too.”

On the Web, CNN tallied 6.8 million unique users on Election Day, trailing only the 7.4 million recorded by Yahoo! News in the news space, according to a Turner Research analysis of Nielsen/NetRatings data. MSNBC was third with 5.2 million, while Fox News attracted 2.34 million unique users.

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