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.
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