Sniper Hunt Spiked News Ratings

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Wall-to-wall coverage of the Washington, D.C., area sniper shootings helped the all-news networks more than double their average audience last week.

Cable News Network tallied the biggest increases, drawing 872,000 households during the total-day period from Oct. 18 to Oct. 23. That topped the 441,000 households CNN averaged in September by 98 percent.

But Fox News Channel — up by 66 percent in households during the same time frame — drew the most homes, with 913,000.

MSNBC saw its household count jump by 70 percent during the six-day period, drawing 352,000 homes.

Fox News, MSNBC and CNN pulled their biggest ratings last Wednesday, the day police released the names of the two suspects in the sniper attacks. The networks also went commercial-free that evening and into the next morning, scrapping hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars during primetime and late night in the process.

Fox News reunited some key figures from the O.J. Simpson murder trial for its coverage. Guests included former Los Angeles Police Department Det. Mark Fuhrman and Dr. Michael Baden, a medical examiner who worked for the former football star's defense team. They were interviewed by Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren, whose TV career took off during the Simpson trial, when she worked for CNN.

Fox News dominated again on Wednesday, drawing 1.4 million households in the total-day period. CNN pulled 1.1 million households that day; MSNBC had 567,000.

CNN's guests last Wednesday included former Philadelphia police chief John Timoney and forensic psychologist Harley Stock.

Fox News, CNN and MSNBC gained the most viewers from the 18-to-49 demographic. Fox News drew 376,000 households from Oct. 18 to Oct. 23, up 103 percent from its September average for that demographic.

CNN drew 371,000 of those viewers (up 152 percent), while MSNBC pulled 172,000 (up 77 percent).

Network officials said the ads that were preempted during their coverage on Oct. 23 and 24 would be "re-expressed" elsewhere during the fourth quarter.

Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc. spokesman Jim Weiss said last Thursday that CNN "can easily make good in the fourth quarter."

Despite the tightness in final-quarter primetime avails, he said, "We always have an amount of inventory set aside" for such eventualities.

Fox News went commercial-free from 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through 2 a.m. Thursday, a spokeswoman said last Friday. In describing its make-good process, she said, "We roll people to the next night or, if need be, the next week."

Such breaking-news pre-emptions "happen quite often," she added.

MSNBC officials were unavailable for comment at press time.

Affiliates also will have to shift their clients' spots, since the three major news services did not break for local commercials.

These sniper-related commercial disruptions were the biggest since Sept. 11 and last month's anniversary coverage of the terrorist attacks, but cost far less than the millions of dollars in ads pulled in those instances.

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