Rather scolds blase viewers; Analysis: Anchor sounds off as ratings plummet for impeachment coverage. But TV networks' commitment could be questioned, too.


Dan Rather, clearly disturbed that many Americans seem to be regarding President Clinton's trial with a shrug, signed off CBS' coverage last Thursday with a not-so-mild slap at the public apathy.

CBS was just about to complete its broadcast of the opening statement by House prosecutor Henry Hyde, coverage the ratings would later show drew about 1.5 million fewer viewers to the network than on a normal weekday afternoon. But Rather and most of his network news colleagues, who can read poll results as well as anyone else, already knew Americans were tuning out the proceedings.

Future generations, Rather suggested with an arched eyebrow, will have trouble understanding "how and why the nation has chosen so completely to go about its business. In the eyes of history, Bill Clinton is not the only one on trial."

If that's the case, expect a lot of guilty verdicts to be handed out over the next few weeks.

But can viewers really be blamed? Bad enough that impeachment has dominated the news at least since the November elections. But coverage of the Senate trial, with a single camera continuously trained on men reading from prepared texts, makes PBS pledge breaks seem thrilling by comparison. The networks have to resort to visual aids and factoids (anybody whose knowledge of Andrew Johnson's impeachment hasn't increased tenfold hasn't been watching) to keep things at least marginally interesting.

In defending his network's decision to air a football game Dec. 19 rather than the House impeachment vote -- a decision that garnered the network higher ratings than either ABC or NBC -- CBS News President Andrew Heyward complained: "We've covered [impeachment] so much, it has turned off the public in droves."

None of the big three networks -- ABC, CBS or NBC -- has concrete plans for airing the remainder of the trial, promising only to disrupt regular programming if the situation warrants.

So far, the networks have aired live coverage of the Senate trial only thrice: the ceremonial swearing-in Jan. 7; Hyde's opening remarks on Jan. 14, which kept the networks' attention for about 90 minutes; and Tuesday, when opening arguments from White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff monopolized the networks for about two hours.

Network viewership during the trial coverage Jan. 14 was about one-third lower than normal. Based on who was watching the previous day, ABC (which earned the highest rating for its coverage of the GOP's opening statements) lost about 800,000 viewers, NBC about 300,000.

Locally, TV stations took quite a bath Tuesday. Based on ratings from Jan. 7-18, ratings champ WJZ, Channel 13, dropped nearly four ratings points during its impeachment coverage, from 7.5 to 3.7. With each ratings point equaling roughly 10,000 viewing households, that means the CBS affiliate lost about 38,000 viewers.

WBAL, Channel 11, dropped from a 6.1 rating to a 2.5, while WMAR tumbled from a 2.5 to a 0.8 (more people watched a rerun of "Mama's Family" on WBFF, Channel 45, than watched ABC's impeachment coverage on WMAR).

Only cable's all-news stations are benefiting from any public interest in the proceedings, further proving that people are relying more and more on CNN and its brethren for breaking news.

AT CNN, by far the dominant all-news network, viewership during the station's gavel-to-gavel coverage the week of Jan. 11 saw an increase of 113 percent over January '98. Trial viewership peaked on Jan. 14, with about 1.5 million households tuned in, an increase of 185 percent over the same period last year.

Things are looking up most at Fox News Channel, where the impeachment trial has not only boosted viewership, but has enabled the network to overtake rival MSNBC in the ratings for two consecutive weeks in prime time, the first time that's ever happened.

Last week, Fox News, which is seen in 9 million fewer homes than MSNBC, averaged 281,000 viewing households in prime time, compared with 209,000 for MSNBC.

But signs of saturation are evident even on the all-news networks. Only Fox News has seen an increase over December 1998. According to Nielsen figures cited by the network, between noon and 7 p.m., when almost all the trial coverage has aired, Fox News viewership has increased 36 percent, to 171,000 households.

CNN has seen a 2 percent decrease from December (when viewership was no doubt increased by the bombing of Iraq), to 890,000 households, while MSNBC has fallen 6 percent, to 213,000 households.

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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