'Nightly,' 'Today' are riding on 10-year ratings streaks

NBC’s vaunted news division is starting to show some uncharacteristic cracks.

Once lauded as unassailable No. 1 franchises, “Nightly News” and “Today” are experiencing audience erosion this season, a cause for increasing alarm at 30 Rock.

Both are riding more than 10-year streaks atop the ratings, but Brian Williams finished No. 2 for the February sweep behind ABC’s Charlie Gibson, triggering the reassignment of “Nightly” exec producer John Reiss.

“Today” still enjoys a huge 800,000-viewer margin over “Good Morning America,” according to Nielsen, but it finished February sweeps 8% off from last year. The competition between NBC and ABC in the morning and the evening is still experiencing upheaval from the departure of Katie Couric from “Today” and the transfer of Gibson from “GMA” to “World News.”

Couric’s departure from “Today” appears to have made the show weaker, despite the addition of the well-received Meredith Vieira.

The show is off steeply from last year, which is to be expected the year after NBC had the Winter Olympics in Torino. The last time “Today” finished February under 6 million was 2005, the year “GMA” came within 40,000 ADD [[of]] the lead and NBC jettisoned then-producer Tom Touchet.

But that “Today” finished sweeps level with 2005 having lost Couric and facing both the Oscars on ABC and the Superbowl on CBS, could in itself be considered an achievement. Gibson’s move to “World News” has made that show stronger, but “GMA” has had trouble gaining much audience without him. The “GMA” needle did-n’t budge in February, despite coverage of the Oscars and reporter Bob Wood-ruff’s return to the network to talk about the injuries that nearly took his life.

CBS may be the beneficiary. A distant third, “The Early Show” had double-digit increases in women 18-49 and total viewers.

Lead changes in the evening news race typically occur over many years, and the new leader generally holds the position for some time, as Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw did for different intervals.

That’s what’s so disturbing to NBC execs, who find themselves in a dogfight for first long after they thought they had the position locked up.

ABC’s “World News” prevailed in two of the first three weeks of February in both total viewers and the key 25-54 news demo. Gibson is riding a four-week winning streak in 25-54 and has shown audience gains over last year for 10 straight weeks.

“We have a terrific trend line,” says “World News” exec producer Jon Banner. “Two victories in three weeks is something we haven’t done in a long time.”

News analyst Andrew Tyndall attributes Gibson’s surge in the younger demos to story selection that focused more on family-oriented themes, such as leading the broadcast with a report on the virus linked to cervical cancer, while NBC and CBS led with Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It isn’t that NBC is slipping; it has the most hard news of any newscast and is the most Washington-oriented,” Tyndall says. “ABC’s story selection was more family- and women-oriented and younger.”

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