Couric a demo demon in tight news race

NBC's 'Nightly News' retains lead in total viewers

CBS’ Katie Couric slipped to third place in the evening news race but staked her claim to first in the 25-54 demo, the most important to Madison Avenue.

NBC’s “Nightly News” retained the lead among newscasts in total viewers with 8.18 million last week, while ABC’s “World News” attracted 7.56 million, with a thin 70,000-viewer lead over CBS’ 7.49 million.

In the 25-54 demographic — which includes the only viewers advertisers pay for — CBS and NBC were in a dead heat for first, each with a 2.1 rating. ABC finished a close third with a 2.0.

Couric dropped steadily in the first three weeks after her splashy Sept. 5 debut, but in her fourth week, the numbers are leveling off, with the newscast settling into a much more competitive position than it had last year.

“If we could maintain what we did last week, where we are up almost 1 million, and the leader was down 1 million, I would consider us ahead of our plan,” said CBS News and Sports prexy Sean McManus.

Last year CBS was nearly 2.6 million viewers behind first-place NBC and 1.3 million behind ABC.

As of last week, CBS had gained 22% in total viewers over the same week last year, compared with drops of 14% and 11% from last year for NBC and ABC.

The margin between first and third closed to 600,000 as NBC shed more than a million viewers and CBS gained nearly 900,000. In the key 25-54 demo, CBS is up 35% compared with drops of 23% for NBC and 17% for ABC.

Couric’s year-to-year gains are unusual given the recent history of anchor transition at the major broadcast nets.

Dan Rather lost 4% of Walter Cronkite’s audience in his first month in 1981. Peter Jennings lost 7% when he became sole anchor at ABC in 1983, and Charles Gibson dropped 7% in his first month as anchor of “World News” earlier this year.

Tom Brokaw held NBC’s audience when Roger Mudd moved off the anchor’s desk in 1983, but his successor, Brian Williams, lost 7% in his first month at the helm of the “Nightly News.”

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