If you believe the tabloids, it’s just a matter of time before Katie Couric vacates the anchor chair at the CBS Evening News. Standing in the check-out line at the supermarket over the weekend, I glanced at one gossip mag that predicts Ms. Couric will depart after the 2008 election. Another speculates that her exit will come much sooner, perhaps by the end of the year.
The articles were, essentially, a rehash of oft-cited problems for Couric and the network: public (and private) feuds with former anchors; changes in format and executive producers, and–most importantly–declining ratings. According to Nielsen, the Evening News has lost almost 300,000 viewers since Couric’s debut last September, a decrease of four percent. Obviously, CBS is paying Ms. Couric $15 million a year to increase viewership, so network executives, advertisers and local affiliates are hardly pleased, and pushing for an anchor change.
Oddly enough, Couric isn’t the only network anchor with ratings problems. AP television writer David Bauder notes that NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams has lost about five percent of its viewers over the past year. Conventional wisdom suggests that most of them are now watching ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson, which has overtaken Mr. Williams and NBC in recent months, and is now the most-watched evening network newscast.
But, like the proverbial blind hog in search of an acorn, Mr. Bauder sniffs around the real story, but gives it only cursory notice. Comparing Nielsen data from 2004 (when Williams took over from Tom Brokaw) and today, NBC Nightly News has apparently lost over three million viewers, roughly one-third of its audience. When Mr. Brokaw signed off almost three years ago, his average audience was 10.79 million; today, Williams attracts about 7.66 million viewers on a typical night, a decline of 30%.
And, all of those “missing” viewers didn’t flee to CBS or ABC. Mr. Gibson’s lead over Williams is less than 500,000 viewers, and ratings for the CBS Evening News are at their lowest ebb in two decades. Even when you factor in Mr. Gibson’s recent rating surge and the “normal” decline in viewership between winter and summer, a few stark facts remain: By even conservative estimates, more than a million viewers have abandoned NBC Nightly News since 2004, they haven’t switched to the other broadcast networks, and in all likelihood, they won’t be back.
That’s the grim reality facing network television news. Viewership has been declining steadily for more than two decades, and that trend shows no sign of stopping. As we’ve noted before, Mr. Brokaw actually had a larger audience as a third-place anchor in the 1980s than he did as the ratings leader in 2004. For reasons ranging from the liberal bias of the nightly news programs, to the ready availability of other information sources, viewers have had their fill of the three broadcast networks, and they’ve voted with their remotes.
Mr. Williams told the AP that he’s unconcerned about his program’s ratings woes, claiming that he doesn’t know what the audience numbers are “for days on end.” If you honestly believe that, perhaps you’d like to purchase my ocean-front estate in Arizona, or make an offer on a certain bridge in Brooklyn. Everyone in network news watches the numbers; it’s the daily report card that (ultimately) determines if anchors, correspondents, producers and executives keep their jobs. If the NBC anchor isn’t monitoring the ratings, it’s probably because he doesn’t want more bad news.
By all accounts, Brian Williams is well-respected at NBC, and there doesn’t appear to be an active effort to replace him (at least not yet). But a newscast that has lost millions of viewers in less than three years is hardly a cause for celebration at the network, particularly when they’re paying Williams a handsome salary to retain an audience. Never mind that the three broadcast networks remain invested in a news “model” that reached its peak more than 20 years ago, and will never reach those audience levels again.
To use a shop-worn analogy, the current gyrations in TV news are the broadcast equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the good ship Titanic. Most of the viewers have (rightly) gone over the side, but the networks keep tinkering with the “right” combination of personalities and coverage, trying to lure viewers back on board. Twenty years of ratings data indicates that their approach simply won’t work, but the suits at NBC, CBS and ABC remain undeterred. After all, there’s still a lot of money to be made in TV news, though nowadays, it means charging higher ad rates for an ever-shrinking, steadily-aging audience. And the band played on.