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Close to 57 million watched Obama announce bin Laden’s killing

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About 57 million TV viewers watched President Obama announce Sunday that U.S. military forces had killed Osama bin Laden in a targeted attack.

Although that audience is dwarfed by the 82 million who watched then-President George W. Bush address the nation in the immediate aftermath of the bin Laden-orchestrated Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. soil, Sunday’s viewership is thought to be the largest TV audience of Obama’s presidency.

“Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world, the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children,” Obama announced about 11:35 p.m. Sunday, speaking from the East Room of the White House.

“It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory — hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the twin towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction,” the president continued.

Nielsen reported that the audience was 56.7 million viewers. By comparison, shortly after being sworn into office, Obama drew 52 million for his first Address to the Joint Session of Congress. (That’s Washington-speak for “guy who just got inaugurated five weeks ago’s State of the Union Address.”)

In coming up with Sunday’s stat, Nielsen counted viewers who watched Obama on ABC, CBS, NBC, Telemundo, Univision, CNN, Centric, CNBC, FNC, HLN and MSNBC.

To put Sunday’s audience into presidential perspective:

• Nearly 68 million people watched in 1998 as President Bill Clinton acknowledged that he’d had a relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

• About 60 million people watched President Richard M. Nixon deliver his resignation speech in 1974 — when there were lots fewer people, and certainly lots fewer TVs, in the United States.

• About 41 million people watched Ronald Reagan inaugurated in 1981 — the largest presidential inauguration on record. (About 38 million watched Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, which is the second-most watched presidential inauguration.)

• About 133 million people watched the first night of the Persian Gulf War, on Jan. 17, 1991.

• About 95 million viewers sat transfixed to their TV sets as authorities engaged in a slow chase in Los Angeles with O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco back on June 17, 1994.

• Just more than 33 million viewers watched Princess Diana’s funeral, on Sept. 6, 1997.

• And, of course, 23 million watched Prince William wed Kate Middleton last Friday.

Pelley gets Couric’s seat

The worst-kept secret finally reported by CBS: Jeff Fager, the “60 Minutes” exec producer who assumed oversight of the entire CBS News division in February, has selected longtime “60 Minutes” correspondent Scott Pelley to anchor the “CBS Evening News.”

Fager picked Pelley to be the face of the evening newscast under his watch. Pelley replaces Katie Couric, who finally made it official that she was leaving the gig in the nick of time — one week before CBS News went out with its Pelley announcement. Still no official word yet on where she’s going — presumably to host a syndicated talk show and become The Next Oprah, while also keeping one foot in the news game.

In his new gig, Pelley will also be the managing editor of “CBS Evening News” — a program name usually accompanied by “mired in third place.”

Since word of the Pelley pick got out weeks ago, The Reporters Who Cover Television have included in their coverage references to Pelley oozing credibility from his pores and such gags as “not groundbreaking,” “not innovative,” “not risky” and “staying the course.” These assessments get right in among Fager’s ganglions.

“He’s more experienced than any reporter who could qualify for this job,” Fager told the TV Column on Tuesday. “His pure reporting experience gives him a credibility that will serve him so well being managing editor, which is not a small part of the job.”

At “60 Minutes,” where correspondents are also editors, Pelley has developed a “breadth of experience and depth that is incomparable,” Fager added.

“I’m not comfortable in third place at all,” he said. “CBS News shouldn’t be in third place. That’s just a fact. We have to come out of that; we have to grow.”

So much of “TV news, is about packaging things. . . . They package what happened today into sound bites and voice-overs, and you can’t figure out what the hell you’re getting out of it,” Fager said. “Don’t just tell me what happened today — dig and dig and give me some more detail and a better understanding of that story.

“That’s what we apply every Sunday [at ‘60 Minutes’]. . . . I’m confident Scott is going to push that among the troops. And that’s what I mean by how important the managing editor [aspect of the] job is.”

Pelley’s response? “What he said” — or words to that effect: “The least important part of my day is going to be anchoring the broadcast. The most important part of my day is all day long, as managing editor.”

That part of the job, Pelley explained, includes working with senior producers in the morning to determine what stories to follow, talking to correspondents and producers about how to cover those stories, and helping work on scripts before hitting the air.

“It’s not about the anchor. The anchor needs to get out of the way and let these brilliant men and women of CBS News all around the world shine. . . . They are experts in their fields. My job is to be moderator of a panel of experts,” he said.

And if you think Fager’s talk about plans to “dovetail” the evening news and the flagship Sunday newsmag is big stuff, you should hear Pelley talk about bringing down “the Chinese Wall” between the two operations.

“With Jeff Fager, the executive producer of ‘60 Minutes,’ now running CBS News and a [‘60 Minutes’] correspondent as managing editor, you can expect lots of cross-pollination,” Pelley told the TV Column, adding that not all of it will be seen onscreen. “We trained the very best people at ‘60 Minutes,’ ” he said, and he intends to borrow from the newsmag staff as stories warrant. “There will not be a Chinese Wall anymore,” Pelley said.

Pelley said CBS News will not remake the evening-news set in advance of his June 6 debut, as the network did when Couric took over the newscast. “I do not want to spend one nickel on anything that does not gather news on the street,” Pelley said.

“I don’t worry at all about sign-offs, catchphrases, hairstyles and clothing. It’s all completely immaterial to me,” he said, in marked contrast to all the hoopla there was about all of the above when Couric took over the newscast five years ago.

In fairness, some of it was not Couric’s fault — or the fault of then-CBS News chief Sean McManus. They couldn’t help it that The Reporters Who Cover Television insisted on asking her, for instance, what she planned to wear on her first night as the first woman to solo anchor a major broadcast-television evening newscast.

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