Broadcast News Rebounds in 2011

Ratings up across the board; NBC remains top dog

NBC in 2011 extended its winning streak in the nightly news race to four years, as NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams averaged 8.76 million total viewers, easily outpacing the 6:30 p.m. broadcasts on ABC and CBS.

Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, NBC Nightly News enjoyed its biggest year since 2006, when it averaged 8.8 million viewers per broadcast. Last year was also the third most watched of the Williams era, which began on Dec. 2, 2004.

Deliveries for the newscast grew 3 percent from 8.49 million in 2010. Members of the core news demo (adults 25-54) accounted for 29 percent of NBC Nightly News’ audience while the vast majority of those who tuned in (5.75 million, or 66 percent) were 55 and up.

Last year, 56 percent of Williams’ audience was female. The ratio of male to female viewers has been more or less constant since Williams took over the anchor desk from Tom Brokaw.

ABC World News With Diane Sawyer took second place, closing out the year with an average delivery of 7.83 million viewers per broadcast. NBC’s margin of victory over ABC was 12 percent. 

All told, Sawyer’s ratings improved 5 percent from the year-ago 7.14 million.

Adults 25-54 made up 27 percent of Sawyer’s nightly deliveries. Sixty-seven percent of ABC’s newscast audience was composed of adults 55+ (5.27 million), while women accounted for 60 percent of the audience composition.

In a transition year, the CBS Evening News once again brought up the rear, averaging 5.96 million total viewers per night, an increase of 6 percent from 2010. Katie Couric hosted her final broadcast on Thursday, May 19, whereupon Harry Smith kept the anchor desk warm for a few weeks. Scott Pelley’s tenure began on June 6.

Women account for 56 percent of the CBS Evening News’ deliveries. At 30 percent, the network’s concentration of adults 25-54 is highest. Adults 55 and older made up 64 percent of CBS Evening News’ overall audience.

While declines in the broadcast news ratings have leveled out, the long-term impact of cable and the Internet is impossible to deny. As the most stable of the three, NBC’s nightly newscast has lost 12 percent of its deliveries since 2001 and 22 percent versus 11.2 million 20 years ago.

Since 2001, ABC’s nightly news broadcast is down 18 percent. The drain over the last two decades is far more pronounced; since 1992, deliveries for ABC World News Tonight have plunged 42 percent from 13.6 million.

CBS has seen the worst of it, losing 31 percent of its audience since 2001 and suffering a 51 percent decline from its average draw of 12.1 million viewers in 1992.

If news is the most tumultuous piece of the broadcast puzzle, ratings comparisons can put to rest the notion that the nightly news is on its deathbed. Cable leader Fox News Channel last year averaged 1.84 million viewers in prime time, or about one-fifth the deliveries NBC Nightly News posted in the same period. MSNBC pulled in 766,000 viewers a night, while CNN averaged 685,000 in prime—5 million shy of last place broadcaster CBS.