NEW YORK (November 8, 2006) — A savvy last-minute scheduling shift enabled ABC News’ Charles Gibson to claim bragging rights as television’s elections source of choice in his first prime-time competition with NBC’s Brian Williams and Katie Couric of CBS.
Gibson, Williams and Couric were back on the air quickly Wednesday as all networks ran two special reports on President Bush’s news conference and his announcement of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. Couric, flying to Washington, was late and had Harry Smith fill in at the beginning of the first report.
All three broadcast networks had promised one hour of coverage Tuesday starting at 10 p.m. ET. But on Tuesday afternoon, ABC announced that it was pre-empting its half-hour comedy “Help Me Help You” for an extra 30 minutes of news coverage.
Not only did that give ABC a half-hour head start on its rivals, it enabled Gibson to take advantage of directly following “Dancing with the Stars,” a major hit seen by more than 20 million people Tuesday.
As a result, ABC’s elections coverage was seen by 9.7 million people, according to Nielsen Media Research. NBC had 7 million viewers and CBS 6.3 million, Nielsen said.
Overall, including network and cable viewers, a total of 31.4 million people watched midterm elections coverage Tuesday, up from the 26.3 million who watched in 2002, Nielsen said.
ABC News President David Westin said he asked last Thursday for the extra half hour, mindful of how important the midterm election was during a time of war. He said he got the OK Tuesday morning to bump the sitcom.
The ratings edge was timely given that viewers are still becoming accustomed to Gibson, Williams and Couric in their new roles.
“This was Charlie’s first election as an anchor,” Westin said. “It was my first election without Peter (Jennings) and the news division’s first election without Peter … It was very important that we do a very strong job.”
Election-night ratings tend to resemble viewership for the evening news, where Gibson has been second to Williams the last two months. In 2004, NBC with Tom Brokaw was easily the most popular election-night broadcast.
Among the cable networks, Fox News Channel averaged 3.1 million viewers in prime time, CNN had 3 million and MSNBC had 1.9 million, Nielsen said. CNN beat Fox in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic sought by advertisers.
During 2004 election coverage — a happier time for the Republicans who dominate Fox’s audience — Fox beat CNN by nearly 2 million viewers.