The new ABC News anchor duo of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff have lost ratings ground to NBC’s Brian Williams and CBS’ Bob Schieffer in their first full week on the air.
The slippage at ABC has created a close race for second with a resurgent CBS and allowed NBC to build a lead of more than 1.5 million viewers, compared to a lead of just 325,000 in the fall, when Charlie Gibson anchored the newscast three days a week.
NBC rang in 10.03 million viewers for the week ended Sunday compared to ABC’s 8.89 million and CBS’ 8.01 million, according to Nielsen.
Ratings shifts this TV season indicate hundreds of thousands of viewers are shopping among newscasts after the departure of Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather in the past 14 months.
Both NBC and ABC have lost more than 700,000 viewers apiece from the 2004-05 season, when elections and the year-end Asian tsunami disaster brought inflated news ratings.
But NBC’s is the only newscast that increases viewers from its lead-in; both ABC and CBS lose viewers when their 6:30 newscasts begin.
NBC was the first to make the anchor transition — from Brokaw to Williams — and soon after it appeared Jennings would retake the lead he lost to NBC years earlier, during the 1995-96 TV season. But now NBC has the most stable auds and a substantial ratings cushion.
CBS has also benefited from the shakeup, adding 214,000 viewers from last year, when its Dan Rather-hosted telecast hit rock bottom in the wake of the Memogate scandal and subsequent probe.
But even those gains are slim compared to CBS’ vastly improved lead-in numbers. The Eye has added 329,000 viewers to its lead-in thanks in part to affiliates in Los Angeles and Chicago that added “Dr. Phil” in the afternoon.
“Across the board the numbers are encouraging; we’re narrowing the gap (with ABC),” said CBS “Evening News” exec producer Rome Hartman.
It’s early to judge the long-term potential of the Vargas-Woodruff combination, and ABC execs stressed the decision to go with the fortysomething duo was about laying the groundwork for the future.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re happy with the reaction we’ve gotten,” ABC “World News Tonight” exec producer Jon Banner said.
Vargas and Woodruff will anchor the show from Los Angeles and San Francisco today and Friday in a bid to highlight the live West Coast edition of the newscast that debuted last week.
Today, Vargas will interview Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; on Friday, Woodruff will interview Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
NBC and CBS have dismissed ABC’s West Coast edition as a gimmick, saying they too update their broadcasts for the West Coast, but ABC has seen some big gains since the debut: up 51% in Seattle, 23% in Portland and 21% in San Diego compared to the same period last year.
ABC Seattle affiliate KOMO-TV added an afternoon newscast over the past year, which may be helping the net’s numbers, but programming lineups in San Diego and Portland are relatively unchanged.
After the death of Jennings from cancer last August, Banner said he feels fortunate that the newscast has retained as much of its audience as it has given the rotating cast.
“This is all going to shake itself out at some point, and we feel we’re very well positioned for the future,” he said.