NEW YORK — Buoyed by a strong lead-in from audience favorite "Dancing With the Stars," ABC and its avuncular anchor Charles Gibson dominated election coverage Tuesday night, gratifying a news division still recovering from the rocky year that followed the death of Peter Jennings.
With an average audience of 9.67 million, ABC's 90-minute prime-time election special outstripped the viewership of the hourlong news specials offered by its competitors. NBC's Brian Williams -- usually the top-rated network anchor -- came in second place, with an average audience of 7 million viewers, while 6.31 million tuned in to Katie Couric on CBS, according to preliminary national numbers from Nielsen Media Research.
Among the cable news channels, CNN enjoyed a rare ratings victory, drawing the largest number of 25- to 54-year-old viewers -- the key demographic advertisers seek on news programs -- throughout the day and during prime time. Top-ranked Fox News maintained an edge among total viewers, but just barely, with an average prime-time audience of 3.06 million to CNN's 2.97 million. Third-place MSNBC also saw major gains, pulling in 1.95 million viewers in prime time, a boost of 107% over its 2002 midterm coverage.
Overall, more than 31 million people tuned in to election-night coverage on broadcast and cable television, up from 26 million in 2002. Despite the wall-to-wall political coverage on the cable channels, substantially more viewers watched the broadcast specials, perhaps in part to witness the election-night debuts of Couric, Gibson and Williams, all of whom were helming the coverage for the first time.
ABC News President David Westin gave his broadcast an edge by persuading Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC Television Group, and Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment, to start the network's election coverage a half-hour earlier than its competitors. That meant Gibson's "Vote 2006" special came on the heels of the hit "Dancing With the Stars," which had more than 20 million viewers Tuesday.
The effect was clear. In its first half-hour of election coverage, ABC drew an average of 12.25 million viewers, but the audience dropped to an average of 8.38 million in the hour that followed.
Westin called the move a "far-seeing decision to use the opportunity of a strong entertainment program to bring as many Americans to election coverage as possible."
That said, "there is the question of what you do with a lead-in," he added, "and we kept that lead-in pretty effectively because of the strength of the program."
The ratings victory came just six months after Gibson ascended to the anchor desk, succeeding the short-lived pairing of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, who was seriously injured while reporting from Iraq in January. Woodruff -- who has made a significant recovery -- watched election coverage Tuesday from the ABC newsroom.
After "a fair number of unexpected challenges, to have our team do such an effective job means a lot to everybody here," Westin said. "There is a very good sense of progress and enthusiasm."
Despite its third-place ranking, the mood was no less ebullient at CBS, where the newsroom exploded into applause and high-fives after Couric finished her first live election night special at 11 p.m. EST. With just two months on the job and her ratings lagging behind those of her rivals, the anchor went into the night facing intense scrutiny. So many CBS staffers felt a sense of palpable relief at what was widely regarded as a strong performance.
"This was her first crack at this job, and it's a really difficult job, and everybody went out of it saying, 'OK, this is going to work,' " said Paul Friedman, vice president of the news division. "And she came out of it saying, 'OK, I can do this.' She was pumped."
Couric was so upbeat that, after finishing the West Coast edition around 2 a.m. EST, she invited the correspondents and crew to join her for a celebratory drink in a bar across the street from CBS News' West 57th Street headquarters.
Over at NBC, producers maintained an equally sanguine attitude, brushing off the ABC victory as a product of its scheduling. (The news division was quick to note that its "Decision 2006" special followed "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," which delivered just 8.17 million viewers in its last half-hour.)
"I thought we rocked last night," said Phil Alongi, executive producer of NBC's election coverage. "We want to win, but the ratings aren't what it's about. We got it right, and that's what it was about."
Nevertheless, NBC stressed that it had held on to its first-place ranking in the evening news competition on Tuesday, pulling in 10.94 million viewers to ABC's 9.23 million and CBS' 8.13 million.