ABC scored the first TV news scoop in coverage of the Soviet coup yesterday with Diane Sawyer's interview of Boris Yeltsin inside the Russian Federation Building. And the network expects to have another edge with Ted Koppel anchoring "Nightline" from Moscow tonight.
Though events such as this have been financial drains on the networks, everybody turned the heat up on their coverage yesterday, as the story became even more dramatic and preliminary ratings showed millions of new viewers tuning in.
CNN's audience Monday was 978,000 homes, which is about three times larger than that for any other day this month. It was also the largest CNN audience since the final days of the Persian Gulf war when the cable network set all-time viewing records.
Overnight ratings from Nielsen indicated that the combined Monday night audience for newscasts on ABC, NBC and CBS was up 20 percent from the week before. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that Monday's audience was 11 percent larger than that of last August when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The percentage translates roughly to about 2.5 million more households watching the networks' Soviet coverage.
Deborah Shinnick, associate director of news audience analysis for ABC, said she was surprised that the gains outstripped those last summer. At CBS, spokesman Tom Goodman said, "The big numbers don't surprise me. We expect interest in this story to build."
In addition to the ratings increase, another reason for network excitement is that the coup became more of a television story yesterday, with a tight focus and clearly defined antagonists poised on the edge of conflict. Simply put, it was loaded with drama, the staple of TV entertainment programs. And, physically, it was centered in one place that could be covered with cameras -- like a play on a stage or a sporting event in a stadium.
The physical focus was the Russian Federation Building where Yeltsin and his followers were holed up with thousands of supporters outside.
Throughout the day, newcasters used the language of melodrama to describe the scene.
"Theres' a 'High Noon' atmosphere as tension mounts," CNN's Reid Collins told viewers at midday. Two hours later, CNN's Ralph Wenge was calling it an "escalating crisis," as the new Soviet leaders announced a curfew for the streets of Moscow. Viewers were told that Yeltsin and his supporters inside were heavily armed, while tanks were on their way to expel them. Late in the day, there were reports of gunfire near the building.
Heightening the drama were reports from inside the building throughout the afternoon. At 2:40 p.m., CBS had managed to get free-lance journalist Artyom Borovik on the phone from inside the building for an assessment of the mood there. CNN soon had correspondent Claire Shipman reporting from inside and by 4 p.m. added pictures.
ABC countered by putting Sawyer on the phone with Peter Jennings to talk about her interview earlier in the day inside the building with Yeltsin. It was both news and a promotional teaser for last night's "World News Tonight," where portions of the interview aired.
During the evening news hour, there were gunshots, ambulances, Molotov cocktails aimed at Soviet tanks outside the building. Hard-liners appeared on the verge of trying to crush democratic aspirations in the wee hours and orange glare of a wet Moscow night. It was a story you could not turn away from.