ABC Nips at NBC's Heels
Jennings overtakes Brokaw in adults 25-54 in May
By Steve McClellan -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/13/2004 8:00:00 PM
ABC World News Tonight is poised to overtake perennial No. 1 NBC Nightly News. While Nightly continues to be first in total viewers, the ABC flagship newscast has outdistanced NBC in the demographic Madison Avenues cares about, the 25-54 crowd. For five consecutive weeks in that demo, Peter Jennings and company have outdistanced Tom Brokaw and his crew by a 5% margin, with CBS Evening News with Rather still a distant third.
Change in the network nightly-newscast race tends to be glacial. Viewers develop loyalties to anchors and stay with one newscast or another for years. The newscast's rise is all the more striking given that ABC in prime time is in such rough shape and offers comparatively little in promotional support.
So why the swing in ratings now?
Certainly, World News executive producer John Banner, who took over the reins last July, has been a factor. Colleagues describe him as "preternaturally driven" and "a scary smart vacuum cleaner for information."
Banner says he and Jennings in tandem have instituted several changes at the broadcast, including the return of a segment called "Person of the Week," a Friday-evening kicker, and a fine-tuning of the "Closer Look" segment.
ABC News President David Westin credits a reenergized Jennings with the ratings resurgence at the newscast. "With all of these broadcasts, the anchor is the core of it," says Westin. "Peter has brought an energy, commitment, and enthusiasm to the broadcast that has been renewed."
Westin points to a conscious decision to have Jennings do far more reporting from the field than in the past. ABC News executives say that they often see a bump in the ratings when the veteran anchor reports from the road.
Even so, Banner admits that it's hard to pinpoint exactly what changes have made a difference. "It's more of a gut approach to what we think people find interesting and what people need to know," he says, "but it's gratifying to see the audience has taken notice."
Subtle format changes that have been instituted in the newscast have helped, according to Andrew Tyndall, the publisher of industry newsletter The Tyndall Report. "World News is the first newscast to come out of the first commercial break and back into the news," he says. "In today's fragmented viewing environment, such tweaks are critical to grabbling channel surfers."
NBC News executives often cite "the Oprah factor" in explaining the recent growth at World News. A mainstay on ABC's owned-and-operated stations, The Oprah Winfrey Show has seen ratings rebound this year (see Syndication Watch, page 19).
The NBC brass also stresses that, despite the drop over the past five weeks, season to date, Nightly still outdistances World News by 7% in the 25-54 demographic.
Nightly News executive producer Steve Capus says, "ABC scored a run in an inning, and they're celebrating it. But we're still winning the game."
Still, with Tom Brokaw set to leave Nightly in November to be replaced by Brian Williams, ABC executives see an opportunity to build on the strength shown in the past few weeks. ABC researchers estimate that one-third to one-half of Brokaw's audience will sample elsewhere when he departs.
In anticipation of the opportunity presented by the switch at Nightly, ABC is planning a big promotional push for World News Tonight that will build through October.
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