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November 05, 2008

Election Night ratings blowout: 71.5 million watch Obama win

83571202 Barack Obama's historic presidential election victory was viewed by an equally historic number of viewers: 71.5 million watched coverage across 14 networks Tuesday evening.

Despite networks calling the presidency for Obama relatively early in the evening, his win over John McCain received a higher household rating (41.5) than any election night since since 1980, according to Nielsen.

The coverage was seen by more viewers than 2000's nail-biter (61.6 million). It's also up compared with the 2004 election (59.2 million). The combined number represents the highest Nielsen audience tally since the Super Bowl in February (97.5 million).

The ratings blowout marked a fitting conclusion to the presidential race. No other election has ever resulted in a greater number of exciting televised events or record-setting ratings headlines. From the conventions, to the debates, to “Saturday Night Live,” the 2008 election sent primetime ratings skyrocketing at a time when many networks are struggling to maintain their audiences.

Tuesday night was watched by more people than any of this year's presidential debates or convention speeches (with the Sarah Palin vs. Joe Biden debate coming very close, watched by 69.9 million by Nielsen's count). The combined coverage was the most-viewed television event since the Super Bowl in February (97.5 million).

ABC topped the night with 13.1 million viewers. CNN, in second, had the highest viewership in the network's 28-year history with 12.3 million. They were followed by NBC (12 million), Fox News (9 million -- the second highest-rated event in the network's history) and CBS (7.8 million). Full list below.

On Comedy Central, "Indecision '08: America's Choice" was the highest-rated and most-watched election special in the network's history, drawing 3.1 million viewers.

Beyond the other broadcast networks, ABC News committed money and key primetime real estate for debates and other political coverage throughout the campaign. It's a strategy of "pick your spots where you can really make a difference" that ABC News president David Westin said worked well and led in part to how well the network did on Election Night in the ratings.

"When we cover presidential elections, this is truly in the public interest. We don't make money off this," Westin said.

He said that the election coverage cost "a large amount of money, frankly more than we had budgeted because of the length of the primary season." But he said that it was an investment for viewers, not merely an expense.

CNN U.S. president Jon Klein said CNN was rewarded Election Night by viewers seeing the value of the network's nonpartisan strategy.

"It's been a pattern, a growing allegiance of these viewers, many of them younger than normal news viewers," Klein said Wednesday afternoon. "We're thrilled. We have a lot of fun with the news. We don't take it so seriously that we dull it down. We don't dumb it down, but we don't dull it down either. I think the audiences really responded to that."

Fox News Channel opened two new studios and control rooms and did five live streams from Fox News, Fox Broadcasting, Fox Business Network, "The Strategy Room" webcast and Fox News Radio. Jay Wallace, vp news editorial, said it was a roaring success.

"The numbers were huge," Wallace said. "While there are big spikes for other people during the breaking news stories, we always retain the most (viewers). We'll see that in the coming weeks and months even as we start to see some numbers fall back."

MSNBC president Phil Griffin gave kudos to CNN for its winning night, but said that MSNBC has been on a winning streak in the past six weeks with strong showings by "The Rachel Maddow Show," "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" and "Hardball." He also lauded the channel's fun, interesting, less-formal approach in primetime. "It fits in with the audience," Griffin said.

Net-by-net breakdown: ABC (13,135,000), CNN (12,304,000), NBC (12,018,000), Fox News (9,044,000), CBS (7,829,000), MSNBC (5,889,000), Fox (5,137,000), Univision (4,074,654), Telemundo (790,000), BET (438,000), CNBC (391,000), BBC America (224,000), WGN (115,000) and TVOne (88,000).

And none of the numbers include online viewing of the election results, which was considerable this year. Election Day was a record-setter for many news-oriented sites online. Perhaps the best indicator came from Akamai Technologies, which manages online traffic for many leading news outlets including CNN, Reuters and NBC. Its Net Usage Index found 8.5 million global visitors per minute on its Web sites when Obama's victory was declared, 7.5 million of which originated in the U.S. That audience shattered a previous NUI record of 7.3 million, which occurred in June 2006 for World Cup coverage.

Even more remarkably, the record was achieved in the evening hours in the U.S., when traffic typically runs lower than the daytime hours many Americans spend in front of their office computers. CNN.com, MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com also reported peak traffic numbers. CNN led the field with 27 million uniques, 276 million page views, 4.9 million live streams and 6.7 million on-demand streams.

Research firm Hitwise confirmed that CNN.com and MSNBC.com were the top draws on the Internet Wednesday, followed closely by Fox News, Drudge Report and The New York Times.

Hitwise also noted small upticks for Facebook and MySpace on Election Day, with bigger 50+% surges at Yahoo News and Google News. Tellingly, Obama's official site was up 6% on Tuesday from the previous week while McCain was down 18% by the same measure.

Paul J. Gough and Andrew Wallenstein contributed to this report.

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-- Read all of THR's election 2008 coverage


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