Funerals and memorial tributes

NEW YORK (AP) — National cable news networks are finding that some of their most somber programming is also the most popular.
Funerals and memorial services for public figures frequently boost the ratings for CNN, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, which all carried live coverage Wednesday of former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater’s funeral.
Big audiences weren’t a surprise for Princess Diana’s funeral, a major news story. But deaths of a lesser magnitude are also big business: Memorials for both Sonny Bono and Tammy Wynette each more than tripled CNN’s typical audience, for example.
“It becomes a way of communal mourning,” said Howard Polskin, CNN spokesman. “It’s a way for people who can’t be there to gather around the television set and pay their respects.
Wynette’s funeral had a 1.8 rating for CNN, compared to its typical daytime average of .5, the network said.
Bono’s funeral doubled MSNBC’s average audience. The network also ran a special “Time & Again” feature on Bono’s life the night after he was killed in a skiing accident, and it more than doubled the network’s average prime-time audience, a spokeswoman said.
“Extended coverage television works best when it’s live and it is covering a highly emotional event,” said television consultant Al Primo.
Big television audiences are partly drawn through the same phenomenon that leads people to attend funerals of people they never knew, said Robert Fulton, a retired professor who established the Center for Death Education and Research at the University of Minnesota.
“It’s a way of keeping death under control,” Fulton said. “It’s packaged death. We can see the grief on the faces of family and friends, but we are spared that.”
During Goldwater’s funeral on Wednesday, the news networks were silent on the other big stories of the day: the train crash that killed scores of people in Germany, and President Clinton’s effort to normalize trade relations with China.
People who program the networks say they don’t allow the ratings performance of funerals to distort their news judgment. In Goldwater’s case, the former presidential candidate’s standing as the father of modern conservatism merited full coverage of his funeral, said Bob Epstein, executive producer in charge of MSNBC’s daytime programming.
“We know that these things attract viewers,” said John Moody, Fox’s vice president for news.
“Does that make it easier to make a decision to cover these? Sure,” he said. “But it’s not a reflex.”
Not all funerals are an automatic draw. For example, the memorial service for children shot and killed last month in an Oregon school cafeteria did not affect MSNBC’s ratings.