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Jennings, Williams in tight ratings race

Ratings at their tightest since Brokaw bowed out

The network newscast ratings race for first place keeps tightening, with ABC’s Peter Jennings nipping at the heels of NBC’s Brian Williams.

Jennings beat Williams in the news-watching 25-54 demographic last week, his second victory in the demo and closest margin in overall viewers since Williams took over from Tom Brokaw 10 weeks ago.

“People’s habits of watching the evening news don’t change that quickly, so we are very pleased at the results we’ve seen,” said “World News Tonight” exec producer John Banner. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

The overall viewer margin between the two shows has shrunk to 60,000 viewers. NBC’s “Nightly News” averaged 10.21 million viewers, ABC’s “World News Tonight” 10.15 million.

CBS’s “Evening News,” which will bow Bob Schieffer as interim anchor on March 10, was a distant third with 7.52 million viewers.

NBC Universal topper Bob Wright has described his news division’s transition from Brokaw to Williams as a feat of consumer marketing that will go down in the corporate annals.

Indeed, since Williams took over from Brokaw on Dec. 1, he has won 46 out of 50 nights, beating NBC’s grandest expectations and frustrating ABC, which figured Jennings was a lock to retake the top spot, which he held for seven years ending in the 1995-96 season.

NBC is leading by its smallest margin in overall viewers since July 12.

An NBC spokeswoman said ABC’s latest ratings gains were helped by strong lead-ins during February sweeps for “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Banner disputed the “Oprah” effect. “There is very little correlation between ‘Oprah’ and ‘World News’; they don’t perform in any similar way,” he said.

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