Cable-news audiences surge during bomber hunt

LOS ANGELES — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC have seen their audiences surge as much as 189 percent this week with coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and the ensuing manhunt.

CNN’s average daily audience through Wednesday soared to 1.04 million, up from 360,000 last week, the network said Friday in an email, citing Nielsen data. Fox News, the most-watched cable-news outlet, jumped to 1.67 million from 989,000, while MSNBC rose to 509,000 from 338,000.

Since the April 15 explosions at the Boston Marathon killed three bystanders, the cable news channels have switched to near- constant coverage of the investigation and manhunt for those responsible. Boston policed killed one suspect, 26-year- old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and searched for his brother, 19- year-old Dzhokar Tsarnaev, who escaped during a shootout.

“We have people working around the clock on this story,” Jeff Schneider, a spokesman for ABC News, said in an interview. “That’s what you do in these situations.”

The nonstop telecasts have included a few reporting gaffes, including CNN saying on April 17 that authorities had arrested a suspect in the attack. CNN’s John King had to retract the original report, saying, “Anyone who says an arrest is ahead of themselves.” The Associated Press and the Boston Globe also reported arrests had been made.

CNN saw a bigger percentage increase in viewers this week, helped by a reputation for breaking news that it cultivated during the first Gulf War. Even so, it remained behind Fox News. CNN lost its lead in 2002 and has struggled to find a formula that can consistently hold viewers. Jeff Zucker, the former chief of NBC Universal, became president of CNN last year and is retooling the network.

Shares of Time Warner Inc., the New York-based owner of CNN, gained 2.2 percent to $59.75 at the close in New York. News Corp., the parent company of Fox News, rose 2.5 percent to $31.21, while NBC parent Comcast climbed 1.4 percent to $40.56.

Nielsen estimates there are 114.2 million U.S. television households in total, including about 100 million who subscribe to cable or satellite services.

After law enforcement began a manhunt for the suspects and put much of the Boston area on lockdown, the broadcast networks began continuous coverage of the situation, beginning with the morning programs. ABC News switched over Friday morning, Schneider said.

ABC’s Bianna Golodryga was the first reporter to interview the suspects’ father, Anzor Tsarnaev, from his home in Makhachkala, Russia. He urged his surviving son to turn himself in to police.

“We’ve been fortunate to have reporters in all the right locations right now to provide this level of coverage,” Schneider said.

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren, as well as CNN’s Anderson Cooper, saw the biggest audience increases among individual cable programs, according to Nielsen data.

“The O’Reilly Factor,” the most-watched cable news program, saw its audience jump 77 percent on April 15 from a week earlier, according to Nielsen data. The show averaged 4.83 million viewers, the biggest audience on cable that night, compared with 2.73 million a week earlier, Nielsen data show.

On that date, “Hannity” had 4 million viewers, “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren” drew 2.87 million, and CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” attracted 2.96 million, according to Nielsen data. That placed the shows among the top 10 most watched programs on cable that evening. None of them ranked in the top 40 a week earlier.

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