Brian Williams marked his second anniversary as anchor of NBC Nightly News last week with much to celebrate: His newscast has led the ratings race among the three broadcast networks in 100 of the 104 weeks of his tenure.
Only when rival anchors made news—as opposed to covering it—did Williams fall from first place: one week in August 2005, when ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings died, and two weeks this year following the Sept. 5 debut of Katie Couric on CBS Evening News. The other off-week came when NBC News took one for the team and allowed NBC Sports to preempt Nightly News for Wimbledon.
Many factors may account for Williams' success: the strength of local-news lead-ins; audience loyalty handed down from his predecessor, Tom Brokaw; and the solid reputation of the network news division as a whole, in which Today, Meet the Press and MSNBC.com are also leaders. Nevertheless, Williams' newscast must be doing something right.
After crunching the numbers in the Tyndall Report database, we found 10 editorial elements that have differentiated Nightly from its rivals in the 24 months since Williams took over as anchor.
More News, Fewer Ads
Last week's single-sponsor newscast—in which Philips Electronics enabled Nightly to expand its news hole by four minutes—was an extreme example, but on the whole, NBC runs fewer ads and therefore spends more time on stories than its rivals. The network also breaks for its first commercial almost an entire minute later than they do. Never underestimate how much the remote-control–wielding viewers of the evening news dislike it when advertising interrupts editorial content.
Assist From Russert
As NBC's Washington bureau chief, Meet the Press anchor Tim Russert wields clout over Nightly's story selection. NBC files more stories from D.C. and covers domestic politics most heavily, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The network spent the most time both on the 2006 midterm election and on the performance of the president.
Williams works with a team of top-flight correspondents that consistently win choice airtime. Stories filed by NBC's 10 most used reporters account for 49% of its news hole (versus 43% for ABC, 40% for CBS), and seven of them are based in Russert's D.C. bureau.
While Williams has been ensconced, his rivals have been in transition. ABC went from Jennings to the Bob Woodruff-Elizabeth Vargas team to Charles Gibson. CBS went from Dan Rather to Bob Schieffer to Couric. Williams averages both more face time and voice time in the studio than his rival anchors. And he has taken his show on the road on 79 occasions, more than the other two newscasts (ABC 34, CBS 29) combined.
Boots on the Ground
Williams' first major foray into the field was after only one month on the job, to cover the tsunami in Asia. He was on the scene when the levees failed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. NBC covers natural disasters, in general, more heavily than its rivals, and Williams made Katrina his story.
Hit 'Em Hard
NBC is more hard-news–oriented than its rivals. It spends more time on the Story of the Day (the one that attracts the most time on all three networks combined) and more time on hard breaking news (as opposed to features, interviews and commentary). Even its features skew hard: Only 17% of its feature time is devoted to soft content (versus ABC's 21% and CBS' 22%).
War On Terror
With hawkish experts Steve Emerson and Roger Cressey, NBC leads the three networks on the terrorism beat. In foreign coverage, NBC covered the fighting in Afghanistan and Lebanon most heavily; it has spent less time than CBS on Iraq, however.
On the Money
Perhaps in a nod to sister CNBC, NBC is the only broadcast network that still delivers closing prices on Wall Street trading during the evening newscast. Its business reporter, Anne Thompson, gets more airtime than her rivals at CBS and ABC, suggesting that NBC regards the economy as a major beat.
With all the extra attention paid to politics, disasters, terrorism and the economy, NBC has trailed its rivals on coverage of social issues. It spends less time than ABC on the health, sex and family, education, and religion beats, and it falls behind CBS in arts and media and technology.
Fun and Games
Despite NBC's hard-news emphasis, the network periodically sacrifices its journalistic credibility on the altar of synergy, becoming an arm of NBC Sports during the Olympic Games. However, the Olympics are an exception: In general, NBC finds sports hardly newsworthy at all.