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FIVE NOTES FROM TYNDALL REPORT ON END CONTINUATION OF NBC NIGHTLY NEWS WIN STREAK: POSTED ON OCTOBER 7TH Last week, for the first time in over six years, NBC Nightly News failed to attract the largest audience among the broadcast networks' weekday nightly newscasts. The top spot went to ABC World News Tonight, and its newly installed anchor David Muir, who took over at the start of September.

Five quick points:

1.This should not be seen as the beginning of the ratings setbacks at NBC News nor the beginning of the advances at ABC News. Rather, the change in the evening newscasts is the last domino to fall. NBC had already lost its #1 spot with Today and Meet the Press. Until now, Nightly had been a holdout.

2.There is always greater churn in audience composition when there are changes in the anchor. A new face always inspires sampling: loyal ABC viewers who had been alienated by Diane Sawyer are tempted to return; longtime NBC and CBS viewers seeking variety have a reason to experiment. Such ratings volatility can be expected for the next few months before it can be called a trend.

3.Muir inherited a newscast at ABC that had already undergone significant content changes under his predecessor: "Certifiably Disneyfied," as I pointed out in my review of 2013's newscasts, spending least time on major stories, foreign affairs and politics; most on lifestyle, celebrity, show business and sports. If anything, Muir's newscast has adopted faster format too, pacier than its rivals, and his predecessor. An average hard breaking news package filed by an ABC correspondent lasts just 100 second (138 seconds on NBC, 121 on CBS); the length of an average feature is 120 on ABC (153 on NBC, 133 on CBS).

4.The major news story during Muir's first month as anchor was the war in Iraq and Syria. It is a complex of stories including ISIS, Kurdish peshmerga, USNavy airstrikes from the Persian Gulf, and refugees in Turkey. ABC spent only 38 minutes covering this complex of stories (just 10% of its newshole). By contrast, it would seem that NBC could claim a hard news edge, with 62 minutes last month (15% of its newshole). Yet viewers who wanted the most comprehensive coverage in that timeslot should have chosen neither. CBS Evening News spent the most time, 89 minutes (22% of its newshole).

5.Indeed there is evidence that NBC Nightly News has diluted its hard news appeal in the month since Muir took over. In part by subtraction: Chuck Todd, its chief White House correspondent, left the newscast to take over at Meet the Press. In part, NBC has focused more on celebrity profiles. In just one month (besides legitimate celebrity news -- the death of Joan Rivers, the suspension of Ray Rice, the conviction of Oscar Pistorius) NBC has aired celebrity profiles on Ben Affleck, Tim McGraw, Meredith Vieira, Joan Lunden, Keke Palmer, and Derek Jeter.

Ever since Scott Pelley took over the anchor chair at CBS, Brian Williams at NBC has tried to occupy the middle ground between old school hard news (at CBS) and an increasingly buzzy, tabloidesque, social media approach (at ABC). NBC's celebrity focus in September may be a sign that this middle ground is beginning to feel squeezed and that it has to compete more and more on ABC's turf. If so, it runs the risk of incurring more defections from those looking for serious content: not to Muir but to CBS Evening News.

UPDATE: on October 14th, Nielsen announced a correction to its ratings data to the effect that it had overstated the size of World News Tonight's audience by some 300,000 viewers. Therefore Nightly News' win streak has not been broken. My observations about the trends at play stand, nevertheless.

COMMENTS ON ABC NEWS' COMMENTS Allow me to respond to this statement by ABC News' Jeffrey Schneider regarding my characterization of its nightly newscast as having become Disneyfied in the past year: "Our mission is to give our viewers information that is relevant to their everyday lives. Winning the Murrow for Best Newscast in 2013 and enjoying our best season in 5 years is far more meaningful than Tyndall's method that confuses quantity with quality."

I have no argument with ABC News' characterization of itself as, instead of having a mission to present a serious newscast, embracing a mission to present viewers with "information that is relevant to their everyday lives."

Included among the changes in focus that this new mission represents, among others, are the following:

-- addressing its viewers as consumers (with tips on handling everyday life) rather than citizens (on decisions made by the body politic)
-- a turn away from global concerns (lack of resources spent on Syria-Egypt-Afghanistan) to domestic ones (in particular, the weather)
-- a preoccupation with what people are talking about (the viral buzz of the Instant Index) rather than with what is happening (public policy debates)
-- an emphasis on what entertains people (shobiz, sports, celebrity, human interest, true crime) over what affects them (gun control, healthcare reform, budget policy, surveillance)

Three quick points on quantity and quality:

-- I believe this Murrow award was for the best single day's newscast, not the best newscast day-in, day-out. My analysis takes the long annual view.

-- When ABC refers to its "best season", I believe it is confusing quantity (audience size per Nielsen) with quality, as the saying goes.

-- It is true that the method embodied in my Year in Review uses quantitative measures not qualitative ones. That does not mean that I concede that ABC World News' journalistic style remains unchanged, and only its deployment of resources has switched from seriousness. The Disneyfication of World News is thoroughgoing, embracing both story selection and story presentation.

Lastly, on the issue of ABC's cancelation of its subscription to my database some ten years ago [which is not part of Schneider's public statement, but has been mentioned by him to some media reporters, for example here and here], three more things:

-- If the cancelation was indeed the motivation for my analysis of ABC's 2013 performance, why would I have waited ten years to make this observation? ABC is the one that changed last year, not me.

-- If the executives at ABC believe that no one would notice the changes in the format and content of their newscast simply by resuming their annual subscription with me, then they are deluding themselves.

-- I resent any insinuation that my research findings represent some kind of shakedown: that I would suppress them if only ABC resumed its subscription. Prior to these insinuations, I had no animus towards ABC and would embrace any decision they might make to reverse course and resume serious coverage of the day's news.

UPDATE: here is a reminder of a Columbia Journalism Review article by Paul Friedman, a onetime executive producer at ABC World News Tonight, written 18 months ago. In it he presaged the wholesale changes that became evident during 2013. He quoted ABC's in-house label for their new style: Insurgent!