Who's winning the election? The comedians

By Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff, 12/13/2000

n Monday night, David Lettermen recited his top 10 lessons of the 2000 election. No. 5: ''It's been a lot of trouble for two guys who no one really liked in the first place.''

Check that. Thanks to the surreal Florida ''whowonit,'' George W. Bush and Al Gore have made some new friends. Late- night comics, dot-coms, the 24/7 news cable outlets, and Sunday talking heads all reaped big rewards from the election fiasco.

In this era of instant information gratification, the ''new media'' tend to clean up on these mega-stories, a point illustrated by a new Pew Research Center survey asking nearly 3,000 respondents about their primary election news sources.

According to the survey, cable television is now the No. 1 source. The number of news users relying primarily on the Internet, while still small, has more than tripled since the 1996 campaign. In 1996, 36 percent listed network news as their top election news source; today that has shrunk to 23 percent.

Newspaper use has declined notably since 1996, but particularly jarring is what happened after the Nov. 7 election. Almost 40 percent used the paper as a chief source of information until the actual vote occurred. Once the ensuing deadlock turned into a daily - even hourly - ping-pong of recounts and court cases, that number plunged to 24 percent.

We know the Florida drama brought good tidings to lawyers, pundits, and chad mavens. Here's how the media fared:

Just for laughs

Comedy Central spokesman Steve Albani says it best: ''The chaos that is going down in Florida, it's ripe for comedy.'' Pounding viewers with a relentless barrage of election-related jokes, Letterman watched his November 2000 audience jump 12 percent compared to the same period in 1999. At NBC, ''Tonight Show'' host Jay Leno had his highest November numbers since 1997.

The November ratings for Comedy Central's ''Daily Show With Jon Stewart'' were the highest of the year, and the 3.1 million viewers who tuned in during the first week of December made it the show's biggest week ever. ''Saturday Night Live'' November viewership was up 30 percent over the previous year as the show enjoyed its best ''sweeps'' period ratings since 1994.

New media milestones

Due in large part to the small audiences they normally attract, the cable news networks all took huge leaps in viewership from November 1999 to November 2000. Fox News Channel was up 353 percent, MSNBC jumped by 253 percent, and CNN's audience increased by 198 percent.

Meanwhile, records are shattering in cyberspace. Salon.com claimed an unprecedented number of page views for November and a single day record on Nov. 8. Competing Webzine Slate said it had an all-time high number of single day users on Nov. 9. MSNBC.com attracted 6.9 million unique users on election day, more than doubling its previous high. (That is 5 million more than the number of unique users for the Sept. 11, 1998 release of the Starr Report.) Washingtonpost.com reports that in terms of page views, its 19 best days have all occurred since Nov. 7. The Boston Globe-affiliated Boston.com site set daily and monthly records for page views in November and is now averaging about 20 percent more daily page views than before the election.

Early risers rising

Perhaps convinced that some electoral skulduggery might occur as they slumbered, citizens were more inclined to tune into early morning news in November. NBC's ''Today Show'' audience was up about 20 percent from the previous year while ABC's ''Good Morning America'' viewership increased by about 10 percent. (CBS's ''Early Show'' was down about 10 percent from the numbers achieved during last November's launch of the program with Bryant Gumbel.) In the Boston market, WCVB-TV (Channel 5) and, particularly, WBZ-TV (Channel 4) showed some growth over last year in the early morning newscasts.

The undisputed winner of the 2000 election, however, is the Sunday brunch network talk show, often dismissed as a throwback to a more politically vibrant era. NBC's ratings-leading ''Meet the Press,'' CBS's ''Face the Nation, '' and even ABC's struggling ''This Week W ith Sam Donaldson & Cokie Roberts'' boasted viewership increases of about 25 percent over November 1999.

Broadcast news blues

With election information available on demand, signature broadcast news shows struggled with relevance and ratings. Of the big three evening newscasts, only NBC and Tom Brokaw saw a viewership increase from November 1999, and that by a scant 2 percent. The CBS and ABC newscasts with Dan Rather and Peter Jennings were down by 1 percent and 2 percent, respectively.

The story was the same in Boston where Channels 4 and 5 experienced slight ratings dips from last November's numbers in their crucial 11 p.m. newcasts. The ratings for 11 p.m. leader, WHDH-TV (Channel 7), were flat. One observer, noting the uninspiring numbers for the late newcasts, suggested that by bedtime, viewers may have been ''over-newsed,'' on the election saga.

Print pops, then plateaus

Early data from a few major newspapers suggest they enjoyed some quick circulation spikes in single-copy sales, only to see them fade as the deadlock stretched on and cable TV commandeered the story. The Chicago Tribune reported a 25 percent increase in sales on Nov. 8 with a drop to about 2 percent above normal after that. New York Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said sales were up 14 percent nationally during election week and since then ''the percentage of gains have been tapering off.'' A Washington Post spokeswoman said the paper sold 50,000 extra copies on Nov. 8 with the numbers ''up and down'' since then. And Boston Globe spokesman Richard Gulla said the paper sold about 60,000 extra copies on Nov. 7, 8, and 9 and ''since then, it's been relatively flat.''