Audiences fasten their attention to crisis coverage

January 16, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles---Americans are tuning to news programs in near-record numbers for information on the Gulf crisis. And the audience is growing.

That's the early word from Nielsen ratings for late last week and early this week. The figures show that:

*Since Friday, CNN's audience has been more than twice as large as normal on a full 24-hour cycle. Furthermore, peak viewing has topped some of the record audiences garnered by CNN in the aftermath of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August.

The all-news cable channel achieved one of its largest audiences ever Saturday afternoon during President Bush's press conference following the vote in Congress backing use of force.

"All of our programs are way up," CNN's Eileen Murphy said yesterday.

*ABC's "Line in the Sand" special on Monday night, anchored by Peter Jennings, was watched in about 18 million homes, more than any entertainment program airing opposite it. By comparison, "MacGyver," which usually runs in that time period on ABC, is watched in about 11 million homes.

*The evening newscasts on ABC, NBC and CBS were all up by 10 percent or more for the full week last week, David Poltrack, the vice president for research at CBS said yesterday. The audience has steadily grown as the U.N. deadline for an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait has approached, according to Poltrack.

ABC's "Nightline" on Monday was up 66 percent from the previous week. And NBC's 11:30 p.m. news special with Tom Brokaw the same night drew an audience 40 percent larger than the "Tonight" show did in the same time slot the week before.

Poltrack predicted the number of homes using television -- commonly called HUT levels -- would continue to rise dramatically through the next few days of crisis.

Meanwhile, CBS News President Eric Ober said yesterday that the CBS reporters and camera crews in Baghdad were planning to stay past last night's deadline. CBS had previously declined to comment on the status of its team in Baghdad.

Ober said that correspondent Allen Pizzey and producer Larry ++ Doyle were in Iraq's capital with a camera crew. He said the decision of when to leave would be theirs.

The CBS team is staying at the same hotel as reporters and technicians from ABC, NBC and CNN, according to Joe Peyronnin, head of planning for CBS News' Gulf coverage. The CNN contingent includes anchorman Bernard Shaw, the only anchorman in Baghdad.

"You could ask why take the risks [of having reporters in Baghdad]," Ober said. "But if you look back at Berlin and Toyko, there's a general feeling that if journalists could have been in those cities, we might have chosen to do so. It's a desire to be in a location where important events happen and a key player might be available."

The situation is not without precedent. There were American journalists in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, for example, including Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh.

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