Blake case causes unexpected ratings jump for CNN, pitched competition in cable news

Wednesday, April 24th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ The Robert Blake murder case may not rival O.J. Simpson's in television attention, but it's already caused a surprising ratings bump for CNN and a flareup of tensions in cable's hottest rivalry.

CNN had its biggest prime-time audiences of the year last Thursday after the former ``Baretta'' actor was charged with shooting his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, to death last May outside a Los Angeles restaurant.

``It was a Hollywood murder mystery,'' said Mary Lynn Ryan, managing editor of CNN/US. ``It had all the elements that people find fascinating and seamy in a way.''

CNN, which has fallen to second place this year in the cable news ratings to Fox News Channel, averaged nearly 1.9 million viewers that night. ``It was a little surprising,'' Ryan said, although CNN laid the groundwork in anticipation of a break in the case.

CNN paid the airfare for Bakley's sister, Margerry, from her Knoxville, Tenn., home to Los Angeles, and guarded her against advances from other reporters Monday. CNN featured Bakley interviews on Paula Zahn's morning show, its ``Talkback Live'' daytime show and ``Larry King Live.''

Shepard Smith, a Fox anchor, made an on-air reference Tuesday to another network having ``bought and paid for'' access to Margerry Bakley.

CNN said it doesn't pay for interviews but that _ like other networks _ it helps with travel for interview subjects.

``I'm sure (competitors) would have done it if they could have gotten her,'' Ryan said.

With little breaking news Tuesday, the networks largely moved on to other things. But Smith brought Denise Brown, sister of Simpson's slain wife, Nicole, on for an interview to discuss the Blake case.

Smith said the case wouldn't be able to compete with Simpson's in terms of public interest.

The Blake case is about ``a guy who ... played a tough guy and a woman you wouldn't want to be near,'' he said. ``I'm not sure it sells.''

Bill Shine, Fox's executive producer, said he didn't anticipate that Fox would cover a Blake trial live continuously if it had the opportunity. It's not clear whether such a trial would be televised.

``You don't have the characters, you don't have the issues that you had with O.J.,'' Shine said.

With terrorism and Middle East violence, the Blake case is also breaking in a very different news environment than existed in the mid-1990s, Ryan said.

Broadcast networks have done nothing special to mark Blake's arrest; the case merited a 20-second voiceover report by Dan Rather on the ``CBS Evening News,'' for instance.

At MSNBC, executives didn't seem too excited about it. Coverage decisions will be made as news warrants, spokesman Mark O'Connor said.

``Our main focus is on the Middle East and the war on terrorism,'' he said.