Viewer turnout heavy for election

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

Despite networks calling the presidency for Obama relatively early at 11 p.m. EST, his win over John McCain received a higher household rating than any Election Night since 1980, according to Nielsen.

The coverage was seen by more viewers than the nail-biting George W. Bush/Al Gore election in 2000 (61.6 million) and the 2004 election between Bush and John Kerry (59.2 million). The combined number represents the highest Nielsen audience tally since Super Bowl XLII in February (97.5 million).

ABC topped Tuesday 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), CBS (7.8 million) and Fox (5.1 million).

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.

ABC News' strategy of "pick your spots where you can really make a difference" led in part to how well the network did in the ratings on Election Night, ABC News president David Westin said.

He said 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.

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

CNN U.S. president Jon Klein said the network was rewarded by viewers seeing the value of its nonpartisan strategy.

"It's been a pattern — a growing allegiance of these viewers, many of them younger than normal news viewers," he said. "We have a lot of fun with the news. … We don't dumb it down, but we don't dull it down either."

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."

Online election coverage also drew big audiences. Election Day was a record-setter for many Web sites. 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 sites when Obama's victory was declared, 7.5 million of which originated in the U.S. That audience broke a previous NUI record of 7.3 million, which occurred in June 2006 for World Cup coverage.

CNN.com, MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com also reported peak traffic. CNN led the field with 27 million uniques, 276 million page views, 4.9 million live streams and 6.7 million on-demand streams.

The ratings blowout marked a fitting conclusion to the campaign. No other election has ever resulted in a greater number of must-see televised events. From the conventions to the debates, the race sent primetime ratings skyrocketing at a time when many nets are struggling to maintain their audiences.

James Hibberd reported from Los Angeles; Paul J. Gough reported from New York. Andrew Wallenstein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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