Though much of the nation couldn't see it, CNN scored a now rare ratings victory over Fox News Channel Aug. 14 for its coverage of the blackout. CNN averaged a 1.7 rating and 1.73 million viewers from 4:15 p.m. ET, shortly after the power went out in many as 50 million homes, until 2 a.m. Friday. Fox News Channel followed very closely with a 1.6 rating and 1.66 million viewers. MSNBC notched a 0.7 rating with about 750,000 viewers.
Nielsen ratings were a mess for cable and broadcast anyway (see page 8) because so much of the nation was without power, so a ratings victory on blackout night was a kind of a tree-falls-in-a-forest event. About 15% of U.S. cable homes were in the dark.
On Friday, with most power restored, the ratings story returned to normal. Fox News grabbed 1.3 million viewers in prime time, vs. 744,000 for CNN and 260,000 for MSNBC.
On the broadcast side, ABC News paid the price for its extensive coverage of the blackout, finishing third in households and fourth in adults 18-49. Unlike the other broadcast networks, ABC pulled the plug on its regular prime time and continued covering the blackout throughout the evening, including on its regularly scheduled PrimeTime Thursday.
The move cost ABC eyeballs, in part because those most likely to want to follow the coverage—victims of the blackout—were the same people who most likely couldn't see it.
ABC had been second in households and third in the demos the week before with a bloopers special, Extreme Makeover and PrimeTime Thursday, but Thursday is typically a non-starter for ABC so the risk in turning it over to news was less than if any other network tried it.
However, last week, ABC also did extensive daytime coverage of the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Iraq, so it's possible that the two events are part of an ABC News effort to redeem itself with affiliates. It had coverage gaffes with the Columbia shuttle disaster and the night the war began in Iraq. In the latter case, ABC ended its special coverage in time for the local 11 o'clock news after indicating to affiliates it would continue into that time period.
CBS won the blackout night with a 7.0 rating/13 share in households on the strength of CSI, Without a Trace and Amazing Race. NBC was second with a 5.8/10 with Friends, Scrubs, Will & Grace and Queer Eye for a Straight Guy. ABC was third with a 5.1/9, and Fox fourth with a 4.1/7 with an NFL preseason game.