December 7, 2006

Couric’s Vanishing Viewers

September 06 6.9 10.2 7.1
November 06 9.4 7.7 9.8

On Sept. 5, her first night on “The CBS Evening News” as the first female solo anchor of a network newscast, Katie Couric attracted a remarkable 13.6 million viewers, nearly six million more than the show had been averaging. The curiosity factor leveled off quickly, but she still averaged 10.2 million viewers for her first week, vaulting the third-place CBS newscast past both ABC and NBC in the ratings.

The network’s stay in that lofty perch, however, was a short one. By the third week of the Couric era, CBS’s evening news was in second place. And by the fourth week, it had fallen back into third place.

Since then the audience has continued to shrink, and figures from the last week of November—a critical “sweeps” month used for setting advertising rates—indicate the CBS newscast averaged roughly 7.7 million viewers. That is about 2.2 million fewer than first-place NBC News and 1.7 million less than ABC News, according to the reported Nielsen Media Research numbers. Compared to the same time the previous year, when the newscast was anchored by Bob Schieffer, CBS’s audience was down four percent.

Since that extraordinary first week, the CBS newscast has now lost around 2.5 million viewers, Were those early fans merely curiosity seekers who do not traditionally watch any evening newscast? Or were they habitual evening news watchers, who ultimately returned to their old favorites on either ABC or NBC? The answer is probably both.

According to one analyst who studies the industry, some of Couric’s viewers in early September were likely to have been briefly energized newcomers to the evening news. CBS spent an estimated $10 million to promote Couric and the heavy national press coverage heralding her ascendance to the anchor chair generated an intense initial buzz.

At the same time, a look at the numbers would certainly suggest that some of CBS’s viewers from those first few weeks migrated back to Brian Williams at NBC and Charlie Gibson at ABC.

While CBS has lost around 2.5 million viewers since Couric’s first week, the audiences for rivals NBC and ABC have each gained millions of viewers in that period. NBC, for instance, went from 7.1 million to 9.8 million in the last week of November, according to data from Nielsen. Meanwhile, ABC jumped from 6.9 million in Couric’s initial week to 9.4.

Despite the significant drop in numbers, it’s probably too early to pass judgment on the Couric experiment. And CBS executives— who are making adjustments to the newscast—say they are upbeat about their new anchor and her performance.

"I couldn't be happier with the job she is doing, knowing she is under more scrutiny than probably any other person in television history," CBS News President Sean McManus said in a Dec. 4 Washington Post story.