Hard news draws ratings

According to the Wall Street Journal, “60 Minutes” is drawing more than prime-time on CBS. It’s a subscription-only story, so here it is:

Even as many news programs face a postelection audience drop-off, “serious” television news is drawing serious ratings this winter, with viewers flocking to shows like CBS Corp.’s “60 Minutes” and PBS‘s “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

This interrupts a decade-long drift of viewers away from hard news toward softer fare. Executives and producers credit high interest in all things Obama, as well as a raft of major developments in the economy and the Middle East that demand longer attention spans from viewers.

“At a moment like this, where the sky’s falling on a lot of fronts, there’s a strong market for serious news,” says Jeff Fager, executive producer of CBS’s long-running news magazine “60 Minutes,” which has seen its audience jump 9% so far this television season, which started in September, after a five-year ratings slide. “This shows there’s still a business in real reporting on television,” he says.

“60 Minutes” has averaged 15.4 million viewers this season, more than most network prime-time shows. The program finished among the top 10 on broadcast television for its last eight episodes.

Eschewing conventional wisdom, which holds that viewers don’t like shows about war or the finer points of a bad economy, the program has devoted segments to violence in the Middle East and the fallout of the subprime meltdown. Where some news coverage has focused on the celebrity of President Obama and his family, it has hewed to the substance of the president’s policy.

ABC’s “Nightline,” taking a similar tack, has drawn about four million viewers per episode this season, regularly beating CBS’s “The Late Show with David Letterman.” Unlike some cable-network shows, which have seen ratings drops in the wake of the election and inauguration, “Nightline” has ticked up over the course of the season.

PBS’s “Newshour” has drawn 1.25 million viewers on average, with ratings trending up over the course of the season and Web traffic more than doubling over the previous year.

“We live in serious times,” says James Goldston, executive producer of “Nightline.” “Every day there is big news, but none of it’s very simple. All of it takes some explaining.”

Executives say audiences have favored shows that take time to explain, including NBC’s “Meet the Press,” which has drawn more than four million viewers per episode this season with a new host, David Gregory, and MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” which catapulted to high ratings when it launched last fall.

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