Record viewership for cliffhanger

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Lesson learned: Extremely close elections are great for ratings. The viewer turnout for last Tuesday night's tumultuous election-night coverage was the biggest in TV history, even if the voter turnout was just so-so.

The cumulative national broadcast and cable rating of 40.2 with a 59 share were the highest numbers in 20 years. (The three broadcast networks scored a 46.4/67 in 1980. The 40.2 million households tuning in also represented the biggest number since 46.4 households that same year.)

More than 61.5 million viewers tuned in on broadcast and cable, based on national broadcast and cable ratings from Nielsen Media Research. That exceeds the 57.6 million viewers who tuned in for the 1992 election returns on ABC, CBS and NBC. But CNN, which scored a 4.2 rating in '92, also drew a few million voters, so the prime time viewership is on a par with '92.

Late-night ratings, unavailable until later this week, are the remaining intangible that will set this year's election night audience apart from previous presidential years. There's no telling how many voters stayed tuned for the final early morning misdirection in network reportage.

But the drama certainly sustained an audience. "We're confident this will be a record audience for an election night," said CBS ratings guru David Poltrack.

NBC scored the biggest prime time returns, with a 12.1 rating, 18 share with 18.4 million viewers. That's NBC's biggest election night audience since 1984, according to an NBC News spokeswoman. ABC ranked second this time, pulling 14.8 million viewers with a 9.5/14, compared to 21 million viewers in '92. CBS drew 13 million viewers with an 8.8/13, against 19.6 million in '92. FOX drew 4.3 million with a 2.6/4. (PBS chipped in 1.6 million viewers between 10 p.m. and midnight, with a 1.2 rating and a 2.4 share in Nielsen overnight numbers.)

National cable numbers indicate an audience of 11.1 million viewers tuning in during prime time on CNN, FOX News Channel and MSNBC. Most of those viewers were watching CNN, which drew a 4.7 rating and 5.8 million viewers. MSNBC scored a 3.2 rating with 2.9 million viewers, followed by FOX News, covering its first election, with a 2.8 and 2.4 million viewers.