They say change is good. But when Brian Williams takes over the NBC Nightly News
anchor seat from Tom Brokaw later this year, that change may help ABC and CBS more than NBC. Researchers bet that sampling of alternative newscasts by Nightly
viewers will soar. And once those viewers leave, will they come back?
Yes, says NBC, which points to ratings showing that Williams' ratings haven't dropped when he subs for Brokaw.
Competitors acknowledge that the NBC anchor switch might not be that
big a deal. "It's not like you'll tune in and see a perfect stranger sitting there," says CBS News President Andrew Heyward. Like everybody else, he expects some sampling and hopes that helps CBS.
It's Brian's empire to lose. "The research shows that the reason people watch NBC is for Tom Brokaw and the reason they watch ABC World News Tonight
is for Peter Jennings," says Paul Slavin, executive vice president, ABC News. "There will be sampling in larger numbers [than normal] and some of them will defect."
Slavin predicts that the future belongs to ABC: "When Tom steps down, Peter will rightfully take the number-one position, not just because Tom left, but because Peter's program is the better program."
NBC News President Neal Shapiro takes Slavin's comments in stride: "I'm sure that's what they're hoping because they've been in second place for seven years" behind Nightly.
Asked specifically if longtime CBS anchor Dan Rather will remain through the Brokaw-Williams transition and beyond, CBS's Heyward responds, "Let me answer that obliquely. We're not waiting until January to be more competitive, but don't read any more into that than you should. … I'm not making any announcement here. We're not announcing any transition or timetable" for Rather's departure.
Season-to-date, among adults 25-54, NBC Nightly News
is down 12% to a 3.0 rating, while World News Tonight
is down 3% to a 2.9, and The CBS Evening News
is up 3% to a 2.3. NBC says first-quarter-to-date numbers show it at 3.3 in the demo vs. 3.0 for ABC.