Williams' ratings drop pushes exec out door

NBC News is reassigning “Nightly News” executive producer John Reiss after a ratings slip that put Brian Williams in a dogfight with ABC’s Charles Gibson for first place.

Reiss’ last day will be today. His deputy, senior broadcast producer Bob Epstein, will guide the broadcast until a permanent replacement is named next week.

Rumors that Reiss would be shown the door have followed the veteran producer almost from the start of his reign at “Nightly.” The fact that Williams has dropped 570,000 viewers on average this season did nothing to help his case.

Williams’ slump was capped this week as Gibson claimed victory for February sweeps, the first time ABC has done so since 1996, the year the late Peter Jennings relinquished first place to NBC’s Tom Brokaw.

Gibson finished February in first place in all key measures: total viewers, households and the 25-54 demographic, which is most coveted by advertisers. ABC’s “World News” won the month with 9.68 million viewers, up 8% from last year, compared to NBC’s 9.57 million, down 3%. CBS’ Katie Couric dropped 5% to 7.59.

For the season, Williams still holds a lead over Gibson with 9.3 million viewers a night compared with 8.8 million for Gibson and 7.5 million for Couric, according to Nielsen Media Research. But Williams has lost more than 500,000 viewers on average from last year, while Gibson has gained 40,000.

Still, NBC execs claimed Reiss’ departure wasn’t directly related to the ratings slump. “Nightly” won its share of journalism awards during Reiss’ tenure, including accolades for Williams’ coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Reiss had been deputy to Steve Capus, but ascended to the top spot at “Nightly” in July 2005 when Capus was named prexy of NBC News. But sources said Reiss never gelled with Williams and had grown exhausted from the demands of the job. Capus had begun discussing different roles for Reiss in January.

Likely candidates to replace Reiss include Epstein and NBC News veep Alex Wallace.

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