Web sites run by MSNBC, CNN and ABC News all shattered records for traffic on Tuesday. The top site Yahoo! News saw its page views up 80 percent over the 2004 campaign.
The numbers seemed a fitting conclusion for a campaign that startled news executives at nearly every turn with the intensity of public interest, from debates to primary nights to conventions and even a prime-time infomercial.
Nielsen measured viewership on 14 separate networks that aired returns, not including PBS, C-SPAN and the Fox Business Network, none of which are rated by the company.
ABC News had the most prime-time viewers, according to Nielsen's preliminary estimate. But stretch that coverage to 12:30 a.m. EST, which would include John McCain's concession speech and Obama's victory appearance in Chicago, and CNN was watched more than any network.
Not only is that CNN's biggest audience in a nearly three-decade history, it proved that a cable network could beat the major broadcasters on a big event. That's an important change from even four years ago, when more viewers turned to ABC, CBS and NBC on Election Night.
"We've got this brand for reliable and trusted news that's on the top of the mind for viewers when they want to watch big events," said Jon Klein, CNN U.S. president. "More frequently, we're on the top of the mind when they just want to know what's going on during an average day."
The challenge for CNN has always been keeping viewers when things quiet down, when opinionated lineups for Fox News Channel and MSNBC have more consistent appeal.
For the major broadcasters, it was the first election with ABC's Charles Gibson, NBC's Brian Williams and CBS' Katie Couric as the top anchors.
ABC had 13.1 million viewers during the prime-time hours, defined as 8 to 11 p.m. CNN had 12.3 million, NBC had 12 million, Fox 9 million, CBS 7.8 million, MSNBC 5.9 million, the Fox broadcast network 5 million and the Spanish-language Univision 4.1 million, Nielsen said.
For both Fox News and MSNBC, it was their biggest audiences ever in the key 25-to-54-year-old news demographic.
It was a satisfying moment for ABC, which trailed NBC on the 2000 and 2004 Election Nights.
ABC News President David Westin said his network made a decision to aggressively cover the campaign, starting from the sponsorship of prime-time debates last January. ABC reporters visited 50 states in 50 days, and its morning crew took train trips into the heartland to cover politics, he said.
"The presidential election is about the people who are voting, about their hopes and fears," Westin said. "Too often the focus is on the calendar and the horse race."
NBC News was without analyst Tim Russert, who died of a heart attack earlier this year. Westin noted that ABC also missed anchor Peter Jennings, who died of lung cancer in 2005.
Television offered several different perspectives for following the race, from BBC America's British filter (224,000 prime-time viewers), the financial experts' views on CNBC (391,000) and two networks geared to blacks (BET and TV One, a combined 526,000 viewers).
MSNBC.com's "Decision '08 Dashboard" had more than 107 million page views on Election Day. The 30 million unique visitors to CNN.com more than doubled its previous one-day record, set on the Super Tuesday primaries last winter.