WASHINGTON — Fox News Channel isn’t the only news net counting its war spoils.
Flexing new might, the NBC News empire gained impressive ground over its broadcast rivals during the three-week war and proved the benefits of having a sister cable operation.
For months, if not several years, “NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw” and ABC’s “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings” had been in a close heat, with CBS’ “Evening News with Dan Rather” well behind in third.
Going into the war, NBC’s evening newscast averaged 11.07 million viewers — only about a half a million more than ABC’s aud.
According to Nielsen Media Research, the NBC newscast widened its lead over ABC by more than 1.3 million average viewers as U.S. military forces raced for Baghdad. It wasn’t that NBC necessarily drew more viewers, it was that ABC’s average viewership fell off.
The good news didn’t end there for NBC. Sunday morning’s “Meet the Press” also widened its lead over ABC’s “This Week” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Today” made similar gains.
“I’ve likened it to being a boxer in prize-fighting condition,” said Steve Capus, exec producer of “Nightly.”
Capus, who arrived at the Peacock’s evening newscast in May 2001, said it’s the first time during his tenure that there has been this great a distance between “Nightly” and ABC’s “World.”
ABC News wasn’t entirely left in the dust when it came to wartime ratings. Net beat both NBC and CBS when it came to improving its share of the key 25-54 demo vs. the same time period last year. Also, the overall number of eyeballs tuning into “Nightly” and the net’s other signature news shows was strong.
Execs say ratings for “World News Tonight” reflected the war’s unusual news cycle, with most of the breaking news happening early in the day, U.S. time.
“We all want to have bigger and bigger audiences. That’s always the goal,” ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said. “But the path there is journalism done well.”
Some NBC News execs took particular satisfaction in the fact that Jennings has always been promoted as the most worldly of the three broadcast net anchors, with particular knowledge of the Middle East, where he once lived.
Observers say NBC News has been re-energized by unprecedented cooperation between the broadcast side, MSNBC and CNBC. Correspondents for “Nightly” popped up on MSNBC; and correspondents for MSNBC were on “Nightly” or “Today,” for example.
MSNBC still ranks well behind rivals Fox News and CNN, but saw its ratings surge during the war.
Capus said there is a comfort level in watching MSNBC during the day, or CNBC, then turning to the evening newscast and seeing the same correspondents. He said the winning strategy is here to stay, and that the other broadcast news nets will be handicapped as long as they don’t have a cable component. (Earlier this year, ABC News and CNN broke off merger talks.)
“This wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan event. This represented a sea-change,” Capus said. “NBC News has earned the right to say we are No. 1.”
MSNBC announced late last week that it won’t be bringing back “The Abrams Report,” a legal affairs show hosted by Dan Abrams that was pre-empted by war coverage.