Correction to This Article
The TV Column on June 17 attributed a quote to TV Newser. The quote should have been attributed to NewsBlues.com.

Tributes to Russert: Critics Cluck 'Drawn-Out,' but Viewers Were Drawn In

Luke Russert mourns his father on the Washington set of "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
Luke Russert mourns his father on the Washington set of "Meet the Press" on Sunday. (By Alex Wong -- Associated Press)

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By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The news media are now in Stage 2 of mourning over the unexpected death of Tim Russert, NBC News's venerable Beltway show host: pundit backlash to Friday's extensive coverage, which naturally was spearheaded by NBC and MSNBC.

"Hooey," say viewers, who watched in record numbers.

TV Newser called the coverage "NBC's Orgy of Mourning."

Poynter Institute's Al Tompkins spanked NBC Universal for the "hour upon hour that NBC and MSNBC devoted to coverage of his death." (Ironically, Tompkins devoted his entire "Al's Morning Meeting" blog on Friday to "How to Interview Like Tim Russert," saying it was Russert's "interviewing style and his detailed knowledge and preparation that made him a standard for political journalism.")

But early ratings results for Sunday's "Meet the Press" indicate that viewers, at least, approved.

Based on preliminary stats, it appears the show Russert had hosted since 1991, and which this week was hosted by Tom Brokaw and devoted to Russert, may have logged nearly 60 percent more viewers than its May average ratings.

If these figures hold up when final stats come out later this week, it would mean the special tribute attracted somewhere in the vicinity of 6 million viewers.

That's an extraordinary number for a show that, season to date, has averaged about 3.9 million viewers.

To put this in some perspective, the biggest "Meet the Press" audience in recent history, on the Sunday after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, clocked just under 9 million viewers.

In addition, the cable news audience migrated to MSNBC in droves on Friday when NBC officially announced Russert had died suddenly, at age 58, while preparing for his Sunday broadcast in NBC News's Washington bureau.

Brokaw made the announcement on NBC in the 3:30 p.m. half-hour that day.

From 4 to 5 p.m., MSNBC's audience approached 1 million viewers -- a spike of about 220 percent compared with the cable news network's year-to-date Friday average in that hour.

But CNN and Fox News Channel also experienced ratings hikes in that hour, with programming turned over largely to the Russert story. FNC's average climbed 3 percent -- also approaching 1 million viewers -- and CNN's jumped 16 percent to nearly 800,000 viewers. That's a total of nearly 3 million viewers tuned in to hear details of Russert's death from a heart attack.

MSNBC's ratings continued to climb into prime time, as it stayed with the story: 5 p.m., up 105 percent; 6 p.m., up 118 percent; 7 p.m., up 103 percent, and so on, peaking between 8 and 9 p.m., when about 1.4 million were watching MSNBC's coverage. From 9 to 10 p.m. about 1 million were watching the Russert story on MSNBC and another 1.4 million over on CNN's "Larry King Live."

After the initial hour of coverage on FNC, some viewers migrated from that network, leaving it with ratings declines over the next few hours, relative to its Friday year-to-date average.

CNN's performance went up and down. King's tribute to Russert showed a 41 percent hike compared with that show's Friday year-to-date average.

For the full 8-to-11 p.m. prime time that night, MSNBC was up 64 percent, FNC down 11 percent and CNN up 14 percent.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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