Viewing of network news and the all-news cable channels has cooled a bit after surging in response to the start of war in Iraq, though tune-in for TV news in general remains elevated, based on Nielsen Media Research estimates released Tuesday.
Results from the first full week of war coverage show that Fox News Channel stayed the most-watched cable network, averaging 4.4 million viewers, compared with 3.7 million viewing rival CNN during an average minute in prime time last week, and 1.9 million for MSNBC.
Taken together, that represents an 18% drop from the previous week, when the war began, although the news channels still are running about three times above their first-quarter averages. Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" was last week's most-watched cable program, averaging 5.4 million viewers.
Aggregate weekday ratings for the network evening newscasts witnessed a less pronounced decline, as overall TV viewing -- known as HUT (or "homes using TV") levels -- slipped 2%, forfeiting half of the gain registered in immediate response to the war.
Network news programs also are outpacing year-ago levels, with "NBC Nightly News" averaging 11.2 million viewers last week, compare with 10.3 million for "ABC World News Tonight." CBS, whose lineup was disrupted Thursday and Friday by coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament, was far behind at 8 million viewers and the only one of those programs to exhibit a year-to-year decline.
Ratings from last week also reveal increased tune-in for network morning programs as well as ABC's "Nightline," whose viewership rose nearly 50% for the week ending March 21 versus 2002.
Heightened interest in news, however, has at best had a nominal effect on traditional entertainment fare. Last week's prime-time audience for the four major networks was down about 3% versus the same period last year, with Fox -- buoyed in part by "American Idol" -- and the WB network the only broadcasters to achieve growth versus the equivalent period last year. Both networks appeal to a younger audience.
As a sign of how much news viewing rose even in the run-up to war, March also represented CNN's most-watched month since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which preceded the existence of both Fox News and MSNBC.
Although Fox News has maintained a ratings advantage nationally, CNN has shot past it in the Los Angeles viewing area since the war began, attracting about 175,000 homes during prime time versus 160,000 for Fox and a mere 65,000 tuned to MSNBC. All three networks have at least quadrupled their average audience for February, according to data provided by Adlink, a service that sells local cable ad time.