Network TV Audience Trends
2006 Annual Report
The Race Among the Networks
When it comes to horserace, “NBC Nightly News” remained first in audience among the evening newscasts in 2005, following the arrival of Brian Williams as anchor in November 2004. The program continued to lose viewers in the past year, but still led in ratings, share and number of viewers. Roughly a year after the departure of Tom Brokaw, it fell from 11.2 million to 10.3 million viewers, fewer than in November 2003.
The declines should be put in perspective. The evening news under Williams had to contend with significant declines in NBC’s entertainment programming, which means fewer people to watch promotions for NBC news and fewer sets tuned to NBC when they were turned off and then turned back on. Williams retained more of his program’s audience, relatively, than the rest of NBC programming. The same problems, and same relative success, are also true of the “Today Show.”
ABC’s entertainment line-up was faring better but in a year when “World News Tonight” relied on substitute anchors, it suffered the biggest drop, falling to 8.9 million viewers by November 2005. That was a 16% decline in November viewership since 2000 and a 10% decline from November 2004. The unexpected death of Jennings, and the on-air search process for a replacement seemed to hurt ABC. That would particularly have disappointed Jennings, who had hoped that Brokaw’s departure followed by Rather’s would provide his network with an opportunity to regain the No.1 position.
Meanwhile, “CBS Evening News” with the interim anchor Bob Schieffer crept up by some 100,000 viewers, moving from 7.7 million to 7.8 million. That success under Schieffer bears note. NBC and ABC brought in younger anchors that also function as in-the-field reporters but CBS, unsure about its long term, picked Schieffer as an interim choice. He epitomized tradition, a familiar face from the older generation of network news, someone who in the last quarter-century had anchored morning, mid-day and weekend newscasts and functioned as Chief Washington correspondent. He has also been the anchor for “Face the Nation” since May of 1991. According to the biography posted on the CBS News Web site, Schieffer is also “…one of few broadcast or print journalists to have covered all four major beats in the nation’s capital — the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and Capitol Hill.”6
And it was Schieffer, not his younger rivals, who enjoyed the audience gain in 2005. What might explain that? One argument might be that being in third place, CBS was the most likely to grow after an anchor change. Another factor might be that some viewers who would no longer watch Rather preferred Schieffer and were likely to give him a try as a known commodity. A third factor could be that uncertainty at ABC with Jennings ’s illness put viewers in play, and some of them might have been older viewers. A fourth factor might be change in the newscast under Schieffer, who seemed to become increasingly comfortable over time, and to interact naturally and skillfully with his correspondents, asking them probing questions with an apparently genuine curiosity. Schiefffer also was the beneficiary of the success of CBS’s prime-time lineup. It is possible, too, that Schieffer’s long experience simply paid off, giving him a depth some viewers appreciated. If so, the fact that the other networks have looked to people in their 40s for their next anchors may give CBS pause as it looks to replace Schieffer, the anchor who today is enjoying the best audience trend line.