NBC, Fox lead declining newscast ratings

WASHINGTON — Wartime audience numbers began to subside last week at most U.S. news nets, with NBC remaining on top among the evening newscasts and Fox News again dominating its cable rivals.

Fox News had more good ratings news, as for the net moved up to No. 2 (behind TNT) for the first quarter — its highest-ever finish in a primetime window.

The Iraqi war still remained the big primetime ratings story for the week of March 24, although broadcast leaders NBC and ABC saw their evening newscasts grow by a minimal 8% and 4% respectively vs. the same week a year ago, and CBS was actually down 5%.

“NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw” averaged 11.2 million viewers; ABC’s “World News Tonight,” 10.2 million average viewers; and CBS’ “Evening News,” 7.9 million viewers.

“Nightly News” exec producer Steve Capus said the numbers prove that broadcast newscasts are alive and thriving, despite the rise of 24/7 cable nets.

“What’s interesting is that everybody talks about cable news, but the reality is, a program like ‘Nightly News’ regularly attracts 10 to 13 million viewers, and is the dominant source for news right now,” Capus said.

According to Nielsen ratings for the first quarter of 2003, Brokaw’s newscast outperformed ABC and CBS primetime newscasts. “Nightly” also posted its best quarter since 1998 in terms of total viewers.

ABC’s “World News” also posted its best quarter for total viewers since the first quarter of 2001. Compared with the first quarter of 2002, ABC displayed the most growth in the 25-54 demo. Ditto for the week of March 24.

Still, NBC continued to rank No. 1 overall among the 25-54 demo in the first quarter of 2003, winning outright every week except for one tie (with ABC).

No one was surprised that average viewership fell off from the first week of the war, both for broadcast nets and the all-news cablers.

Last week, Fox News averaged 4.4 million primetime viewers, while CNN averaged 3.7 million viewers. MSNBC, which continued to report the largest percentage gain over the same week last year, averaged 1.9 million viewers — a 468% jump.

In the first week of the war, Fox News averaged 5.6 million primetime viewers last week, with CNN attracting 4.4 million and MSNBC 2.1 million.

MSNBC witnessed triple-digit increases in its primetime and total-day averages during the first quarter of 2003, as well as in the 25-54 demo.

Other notable primetime gainers in March among top-30-rated non-news networks in total viewers were Court TV (up 12%, 17th overall); HGTV (up14%, 19th overall); Animal Planet (up17%, 24th overall); and Hallmark Channel (up 43%, 28th overall).

By contrast, seven of the top-30 non-news networks dropped in the primetime ratings by double digits. They are, in order of their overall ranking: USA (down 15%), Lifetime (down 30%), TNN (down 16%), Discovery (down 26%), FX (down 12%), ABC Family (down 49%) and ESPN2 (down 13%).

Among individual shows throughout the entire day, only two non-news shows made it into the highest-rated top 50 for March: four separate episodes of “SpongeBob SquarePants” on Nickelodeon and four different Monday-night editions of TNN’s “Raw” from World Wrestling Entertainment.

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