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Monica Lewinsky Beats the Competition

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  • By Lisa de Moraes
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, March 5, 1999; Page C1

    About 49 million of us, it turns out, hadn't actually had enough of Monica Lewinsky and so sat down to spend two hours with her on Wednesday night, making ABC's "20/20" the most watched news program ever broadcast by a single network.

    Or, to get to the real crux of the thing: Barbara Walters beat Diane Sawyer.

    That is to say, Walters's interview with the president's former gal pal outstretched Sawyer's biggest catch, her 1995 interview with Michael Jackson and his then-wife, Lisa Marie Presley. That media extravaganza averaged 37.5 million viewers.

    Oprah Winfrey remains the queen of the prime-time celeb interview. The biggest prime-time interview audience in a decade is still Winfrey's February 1993 sweeps sit-down with the Gloved One, which averaged 62.3 million viewers.

    But Winfrey's Jackson talk was produced for ABC by the entertainment division, not the news division. And most big news events -- JFK's funeral, the Challenger explosion, etc. -- have been carried by all the broadcast networks. Then again, there are just a lot more people in the country and a lot more TV sets than back when President Kennedy was assassinated, for example. Which is why ABC is able to make its claim that the "20/20" broadcast is the most watched news broadcast ever for a single network.

    ABC yesterday was touting a 74-million-people figure for its Lewinsky tell-all. That's a tally of anyone who tuned in to as little as six minutes of the two-hour girl talk. Advertisers like to get that "total viewer" figure because they presume anyone who watched as much as six minutes caught an ad.

    Even so, Lewinsky snared an Oscar-size audience. The last broadcast of that trophy show a year ago bored 55.2 million viewers, also on ABC. But ABC needed to snare a Super-Bowl-size, not an Academy Awards-like, audience to improve its relative position in the ratings sweeps derby, which ended Wednesday night. The last Super Bowl, in January, averaged 84 million viewers.

    So ABC finished third, behind NBC and CBS. But Monica spared the alphabet network an ignominious third-place sweeps finish among the adult 18-49 demographic, which advertisers favor and ABC actively chases. ABC and Fox tied for second in that age bracket.

    Good Monica -- of CBS's "Touched by an Angel" -- was no match for Walters's Monica, who said she'd have to pray to keep from having a third affair with a married man. "Touched" scored only 6.4 million viewers in the 10 p.m. hour, which was when the second half of the "20/20" special aired.

    In the Washington area, the scene of the crime, people are pretty sick of the former White House intern; 46 percent of the turned-on TV sets were locked on Lewinsky, slightly below average compared with the nation's other major markets. Keenest to watch were the Philly and Boston markets, where 53 percent of sets in use were tuned to ABC.

    And how about those ads during the "20/20" confessional? Were they all speaking to La Lewinsky or what? Two for diet drugs; one for SnackWell's diet food; a Maytag spot that included the ditty "Stain! I'm gonna live forever," another for Oral-B, one for AT&T ("Working together in a whole new way"), for Advil ("Strong yet gentle"), Payless ShoeSource ("Doesn't it feel good"), MasterCard ("Being happy with who you are -- priceless"), Pier 1 ("Let your love fly, like a bird on the wing"), Omnet ("Be careful what you wish for") and Burger King ("Stop crying -- start eating").

    Not to mention ABC's promotional ad that started, "When she was only 20 she seduced the most powerful man in the world" and turned out to be a plug for its May miniseries, "Cleopatra."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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