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ABC, NBC Wrestle Over Evening-News Spotlight (Analysis)

David Muir did something truly distinctive over the past year, something recent inhabitants of his “World News Tonight” anchor seat have not been able to accomplish. For the first time since the 1995-1996 season, when Peter Jennings anchored the program, his ABC evening-news program has more viewers than its two rival newscasts – including “NBC Nightly News,” usually the nation’s most-watched.

Muir and his producers “have broken one of the last great streaks in all of television,” said James Goldston, president of ABC News. “And they have broken that streak in the newsiest year any of us can remember.”   For the year, “World News Tonight” reached an average of 8.25 million viewers, compared to 8.17 million for “Nightly News” and 6.56 million for “CBS Evening News,” according to the Nielsen. The ABC newscast is the only one of the three not to lose viewers year over year.

NBC, however, isn’t ceding victory. “I’m very happy with ‘Nightly,” said NBC News President Noah Oppenheim. “It’s a vastly superior show.”

How can that be possible if more people overall watch ABC’s newscast?

The squabbling puts a spotlight on the way TV networks continue to promote their reach among viewers. While it’s certainly true that Muir has attracted a greater following this season – and, during his tenure, driven “World News Tonight” to new gains – NBC’s newscast reaches more of the viewers who matter most to the economic underpinnings of the TV business.

NBC Nightly News” reached just 80,000 fewer viewers than “World News Tonight” during the season. But, more critically, “Nightly,” anchored by Lester Holt, reached 191,000 more viewers between 25 and 54 – the demographic desired most by advertisers in news programming. While it might seem surprising to the average couch potato, NBC can theoretically charge advertisers more for “Nightly News” than ABC can for “World News Tonight.”

A journalist hoping to spark web clicks and reams of unpleasant comments at the bottom of a story might even liken the evening-news battle between ABC and NBC to the results of the most recent presidential election. ABC’s “World News Tonight” has won the popular vote among TV viewers. But NBC’s “Nightly News” is, for now, winning the vote among the viewers that have more pull.

It’s a schism in full display in various areas of the TV business. In late-night, CBS’  Stephen Colbert has engineered a truly amazing surge in viewership, outpacing NBC’s Jimmy Fallon among total viewers. And yet, Fallon continues to win among viewers between 18 and 49, the group advertisers pay most for when it comes to entertainment programming. In the morning,  ABC’s “Good Morning America” broke a 16-year streak of dominance by NBC’s’ “Today” in 2012. Since that time, however, “Today” has rebounded so that it wins the battle among viewers between 25 and 54. In all cases, either side can claim victory – of a sort.

Each evening-news program has its own distinctive charms.

ABC’s Muir has a kinetic presence, working on stories up until broadcast time and traveling to places like Jordan and Somalia on weekends for enterprising features. He monitors Twitter during his broadcast and often wears jeans and little makeup before taking the anchor chair. In recent months, he scored President Donald Trump’s first post-inauguration interview.

NBC’s Holt also pushes to get out of his New York newsroom. Once known as “the fastest mike in the West’ when he toiled for a San Francisco radio station, Holt races to have a presence in hurricane-ravaged Texas and Puerto Rico. His interview earlier this year with President Trump about the firing of former FBI chief James Comey has proved pivotal in investigations into whether the termination was justified.

“He’s had a great year,” said NBC News’ Oppenheim. “He’s often the first, if not only, evening-news anchor on the ground of major breaking news.”

The evening-news programs have experienced a long, gradual period of viewer decline, though that trend had improved in the recent past. This year has been a tougher slog, with cable news taking up some of the attention the broadcast shows might get.

In that light, Muir’s progress is all the more notable, and ABC News’ Goldston sees a path ahead for the format. “The future is very bright for this show, because we are in a news environment were you are bombarded by opinions and half-truths and rumors all day long,” he said. “For half an hour of your time in the evening, you can get a very succinct aggregation of what you need to know. That’s a real value in the modern world.”

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