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NBC Wee-Hours Plan Lends Ratings Boost To Lester Holt’s ‘Nightly News’

An NBC push to use nontraditional viewer behavior to gain audience for “NBC Nightly News” is helping to boost ratings for the evening-news show while it is under intense scrutiny.

Since last year, NBC has worked to make “Nightly News” available on cable systems via video-on-demand and to get local affiliates to run the program a second time in the wee hours of the morning. As it happens, the overnight airings commenced just before anchor Brian Williams was suspended and have continued as Lester Holt has held forth in his place.

The result: a ratings cushion for Holt while he vies with ABC’s “World News,” where anchor David Muir has made strides among adults 25-54, the audience most desired by advertisers in news programming. Nielsen allows TV networks to combine viewership for late-hours runs of programs and many networks take advantage.

“Like any forward-looking media organization, we have been focused on ways to reach our audience when and how they want to be reached. Over the last year we have launched ‘NBC Nightly News’ on VOD and Sirius XM, and we have made the broadcast available at later airings in some markets,” an NBC News spokeswoman said in a statement. “We believed there would be an appetite for ‘NBC Nightly News’ in addition to its regular timeslot, and that has proven to be true: The viewer response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Knoxville’s WBIR, an NBC affiliate owned by Gannett, was first to start the early-morning airings, which now are seen in Atlanta, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, Cleveland, St. Louis, Portland, Charlotte and Buffalo as well — all between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m.

NBC News is no stranger to the post-midnight benefit. The network has made available a second run of the fourth hour of its “Today” program for months, giving hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb cred among college students and workers on the lobster shift. Others may not cast about for latenight viewers. CBS’ “CBS Evening News,” for example, is not broadcast on stations in early mornings.

At WBIR, the station “got a request” from NBC, said Jeff Lee, the station’s general manager, in a phone interview,  “and we said OK.” WBIR pairs the “Nightly” rebroadcast with a rerun of its own local news, he said.

ABC may not appreciate the tactic. “Nightly News” had just 11,000 more viewers than “World News” for the five-day period from March 9 to March 13, which likely means the new latenight effort has helped NBC vanquish its competitor. Even so, the David Muir-led program won more adults 25-54 for the second time in five weeks.

But NBC is not doing anything off-kilter, noted Laura Nelson, a spokeswoman for Nielsen. “Their practices are totally compliant” with Nielsen guidelines, she said.

The tactic lends support to “Nightly News” as its performance is being watched to see if it weakens in Williams’ absence. The anchor was suspended for six months after he acknowledged falsifying an account of a reporting trip to Iraq in 2003. Since that disclosure, NBC News has been engaged in an investigation of that incident, as well as others involving the anchor.

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