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Death of Diana Ups TV Ratings

September 05, 1997|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite an overwhelming glut of television coverage, the death of Princess Diana continues to generate high ratings for news programs, which have invaded England with their biggest guns to report on her funeral.

Virtually every prime-time newsmagazine has devoted much if not all its time to the story since the Princess of Wales died in a car crash last weekend, as have morning programs, ABC's"Nightline" and discussion shows on cable channels, such as CNN's "Larry King Live."

People tuned in immediately after the story broke last Saturday, causing ratings for CNN to spike upward to their highest levels since the O.J. Simpson trial two years ago and resulting in record viewing of fledgling cable challengers MSNBC and Fox News Channel.

Interest hasn't appeared to abate much throughout the week, based on figures for prime-time newsmagazines. Tuesday's "Dateline NBC," for example, totaled nearly 19.3 million viewers, a 30% increase compared to its average over the last month. ABC's "PrimeTime Live" launched its season with impressive ratings Wednesday, following special editions of "Dateline" and CBS' "48 Hours" earlier that night.

"Anything related to the Di story is drawing a crowd," said John Culliton, general manager of KCBS-TV Channel 2, citing an across-the-board increase in news ratings.

While those gains don't translate into a financial windfall (indeed, networks lose money when they broadcast for extended periods without commercials, as many did), they do provide an opportunity--especially for emerging networks--to boost the profile of their talent and programming.

Primary network anchors Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather will be in London for Diana's funeral Saturday morning, with CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, A&E, E! Entertainment Television and C-SPAN committing to extensive live coverage as well.

CBS, which angered its affiliates by being late to provide a national news feed Saturday night, sought to compensate with what the network has billed as the most comprehensive network coverage--scheduling two prime-time specials in addition to last Sunday's "60 Minutes." CBS also sent the largest contingent from any of the morning shows, with "CBS This Morning" anchors Jane Robelot and Jose Diaz-Balart in London and Paris, respectively.

In similar fashion, ABC has taken advantage of the story to showcase Lisa McRee, the KABC-TV Channel 7 anchor who replaces Joan Lunden on "Good Morning America" starting Monday. Though Lunden's send-off will be today, McRee traveled to London and has reported for the show throughout the week.

ABC also postponed the premiere of its Saturday morning children's lineup in order to cover the funeral and lined up a "20/20" interview tonight with Elton John, who's expected to sing at the event. But the network scheduled and then canceled a prime-time special titled "Assault by Camera: Celebrities vs. the Press." A spokeswoman said the issue may be revisited at a later point.

Even Fox--which fared poorly with its prime-time special last Sunday--will air another tonight, preempting "Roar" in favor of "Farewell to a Princess," a program hosted by Fox News' Brit Hume and Catherine Crier.

Fox's little-seen cable news channel, meanwhile, will cover the funeral for eight hours commercial-free, beginning at 10 tonight.

"The nature of the ceremony and the solemnity of it would make it inappropriate to have commercials for this or that product," said John Moody, a vice president at Fox News.

Though overall TV viewing surged Saturday evening and throughout Sunday, the sheer volume of programming has spread the audience among numerous channels. More than 41 million people watched simultaneous specials about Diana on the four networks Sunday--about 10 million more than the number who watch "ER" or "Seinfeld" in an average week.

CNN, which had experienced a general ratings down-turn after the Simpson trial ended, again saw its ratings soar in response to a major news event. The news network peaked on Saturday from 9 to 9:30 p.m., with CNN registering 4.6 million households nationally--the fourth-highest rating for any basic cable channel this year, and its biggest audience since Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro appeared on Larry King's show in October 1995.

CNN averaged nearly 2 million homes throughout the day Sunday, with another million (680,000 and 350,000, respectively) split between MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Headline News also achieved some of its biggest numbers of the year.

Amid the flood of documentaries, CNN's Sunday news program "Impact" reached a record 3.4 million homes with the special "The Life and Legacy of Princess Diana." CNN's audience dropped by about one-third from Sunday to Monday but still remained strong, more than tripling the network's daily average, based on data from Nielsen Media Research.

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