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Sniper Saga A Cable TV Hit

The frightening, ongoing mystery of the Washington-area sniper is proving a compelling story for cable news networks, which have attracted their largest audiences of the year.

On Tuesday, Fox News Channel averaged 1.12 million viewers, CNN had 1.06 million and CNN Headline News had 294,000. For each network, it was the most-watched single day of the year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

That was the day after the sniper claimed its latest victim, 47-year-old FBI analyst Linda Franklin, outside a Home Depot in Falls Church, Va. The story dominated the news networks.

"It's a story that each one of us can relate to," said Teya Ryan, executive vice president and general manager of CNN's domestic network. "We all go out and shop at markets and homeware stores. It has psychologically gripped the nation. The ratings don't surprise me, because people certainly want to know."

Tuesday's viewership essentially doubled CNN's average of 523,000 this year. Fox News Channel is averaging 642,000 viewers this year and CNN Headline News is averaging 215,000.

MSNBC recorded its high for the year on Saturday, when coverage was split between the sniper and the bombing in Bali. The network averaged 523,000 viewers that day, nearly doubling its yearly average of 264,000 viewers.

On Tuesday, MSNBC had 413,000 viewers, Nielsen said.

For all of the networks, Tuesday's audience was bigger than it was for the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"That was really a retelling of an old tale at that point, and that's not what most people turn to news networks for," said Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

The sniper story "is a nice case study of where the news networks fit into most people's lives," Felling said.

The cable news networks were also competing with the broadcast networks on Sept. 11, but had Tuesday's story mostly to themselves.

The challenge for the news networks, as it frequently is on big stories, is to balance the public desire for information with a tendency for excessiveness. Already, the story has provoked debates about whether the coverage alarms viewers or spurs the sniper on.

On CNN's prime-time Connie Chung show this week, the word "sniper" was repeated across the screen in a seemingly endless stream.

"After the traffic stoppages have passed and the facts are rehashed, reporters are merely craning their necks and halting the normal pace of the news," Felling said. "There's 10 or 15 minutes of real news here and they're filling four hours with it. That's what most people have a problem with."

Ryan noted that as this week has progressed, the sniper story was mixed in with other developments — the continuing talk of war with Iraq, the investigation into the Bali incident and the story about North Korea's nuclear program.

"This is a double-edged sword," Ryan said. "As a citizen, this is frightening. As a news person, it's terrific. But you certainly don't want to have high ratings under these tragic circumstances."