Auds weigh anchors

It's a new era for primetime news as three webs scramble to keep viewers

Journalistically, it was a good week for ABC’s “World News Tonight.” Brian Ross got an exclusive with a former NSA worker who admitted he was a source for the New York Times’ James Risen on government wiretapping.

Then Ross broke the story that a U.S. air strike in Pakistan killed an Al-Qaeda master bombmaker.

But Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff’s first full week at the helm was a rough one, showing the pair just how loyal — and unforgiving — news audiences can be.

In that same week, NBC’s Brian Williams opened up a 1.5 million-viewer lead over ABC’s new anchor duo, up from its season-to-date lead of 1.1 million.

That compares with last fall, when the margin stood at just 325,000 while “Good Morning America” co-host and senior statesman Charlie Gibson anchored the broadcast three days a week.

Now ABC is closer to third than to first — and CBS’ resurgent “Evening News” is getting bigger in the Alphabet’s rear-view mirror.

“We know there is some sampling going on,” says “World News” exec producer Jon Banner. “We hope people who watch ‘WNT’ will stay with it because it’s a superior broadcast. But this is a marathon.”

With Peter Jennings at the helm last spring, ABC’s newscast came close to unseating NBC’s Williams as the No. 1 evening newscast. Since the announcement of Jennings’ illness in May, a rotating cast was able to hang on to much of his loyal audience. (Jennings died Aug. 7.)

But now with new faces at all three networks and many more options for news across the 500-channel universe, the networks sense that old ties of viewer loyalty have been broken and that tectonic ratings shifts may be afoot as unprecedented numbers shop for a newscast.

It’s too early to judge how Vargas and Woodruff will perform long-term, but ratings shifts indicate hundreds of thousands of viewer have been sampling various newscasts after the departure of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Jennings — all in the past 14 months.

NBC and ABC have dropped 700,000 viewers apiece from last year, when the 2004 elections and the Asian tsunami drove ratings. But NBC’s is the only newscast that increases viewers from its lead-in, while both ABC and CBS lose viewers when their evening newscasts begin.

The main beneficiary appears to be CBS, which has added 214,000 viewers from last year when it hit rock bottom after the net was embarrassed by a “60 Minutes” report on President Bush’s military service based on what appears to have been faked documents.

But even CBS’ gains are slim compared with its improved lead-ins. CBS added 329,000 viewers leading into the “Evening News,” in part thanks to the addition of “Dr. Phil” in Los Angeles and Chicago.

However it happens, the surge is taking some pressure off newly appointed CBS News president Sean McManus to replace interim anchor Bob Schieffer.

He can use the additional time: Katie Couric can’t negotiate until her NBC deal expires in May. With or without Couric, McManus says Schieffer’s likely heir will come from outside the network.

As ABC’s grip on second place weakens, the question becomes how long ABC News prexy David Westin stays with Woodruff and Vargas before switching to one anchor or bringing in Gibson.

Evening news viewers identify with the face more than the network. But when will viewers say, “Are Vargas and Woodruff on?”

“Whenever you go through a change like this, there is going to be some pain,” says Katz Television Group VP Bill Carroll.

NBC set the benchmark for anchor transition last December when it slid Williams into Brokaw’s chair and barely missed a beat. Now NBC’s lead is looking unassailable in the near term.

Then again, as the past year showed, anything can happen.

“All three nets have turned over after 20 years of complete stability,” says “Evening News” exec producer Rome Hartman. “Having said that, viewer patterns are pretty solid and the product of things we don’t always understand.”

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