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New Hampshire Primaries Are a Boon for Cable News Networks

As the primary season heated up with bracing victories in New Hampshire for Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), all eyes were on cable news.

CNN led the field averaging 3.29 million viewers from 8 p.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday (with 1.35 million of them in news’ target demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds), according to Nielsen Media Research. For the same period, Fox News Channel attracted 3.06 million viewers (901,000 in the demo), followed by MSNBC with 1.64 million (701,000).

Fox News prevailed in the 8 p.m. hour (when the network’s No. 1 show, The O’Reilly Factor, usually airs), averaging 3.26 million viewers from 8 p.m.-9 p.m. compared with CNN’s 2.82 million. The 8 p.m. hour was also when the networks declared Republican candidate McCain the victor.

The New Hampshire ratings represented triple digit increases for CNN and MSNBC compared with the 2004 New Hampshire primary and double-digit increases for Fox News. New Hampshire also represented double-digit increases for all of the networks compared with the Iowa caucus Jan. 3.

“The audience is very attuned to the importance of these races,” CNN/US president Jon Klein said. “The stakes were higher and there was a story line that viewers could easily tap into. And you have the emergence of a lot of fresh faces and fresh ideas, and that seems to be invigorating the audience.”

Indeed, voters -- especially Independent and Democratic voters -- have turned out in record numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire. The large turnout also stymied pollsters as virtually every poll had given Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) a comfortable lead over Clinton. Much of the chatter on the networks during primary-night coverage was the erroneous polls.

What was interesting about many of these polls,” Klein said, “is that they stopped polling two days before the actual election. And one thing we knew from the entrance polls was that a sizable portion of voters had just made up their minds that day or the day before.”

CNN did not call the primary for Clinton until about 10 minutes after AP, NBC News, Fox News and others did, instead reporting that AP named Clinton the victor.

“I’m very pleased with the decision we made,” Klein said.

But caution meant that CNN producers were confronted with a “potentially awkward situation.”

“We saw [Obama] emerging into the room to wild applause while we still had not decided that we felt comfortable calling the race,” Klein said. “So we had to have a discussion about what are we going to do if he gets up and concedes the race? And what we decided was that it doesn’t matter. We’re going to call this thing when we are comfortable that it can be called.”

In the end, CNN did call the race before Obama launched into his “Yes I can” speech.