Television news networks are competitive when it comes to reporting their Nielsen ratings. Very competitive.
Each one will find any way they can to get an advantage over their competitor, finding any little rule in the book that permits them to boost Nielsen viewership figures. The better the Nielsen ratings are, the more interested media buyers will be in buying ad time on their network. Thankfully, the retitled broadcasts are included in sales deals.
A popular way for a news network to work the system in its favor—especially during the holidays, when a lot of Americans are away from their TVs—is by misspelling a broadcast. It’s a way to trick Nielsen’s automated audience measurement system. For example, when NBC News wants to hide what will likely be poor ratings for a particular telecast of NBC Nightly News, it will submit the broadcast as “NBC Nitely News.” (Ditto ABC and “Wrld New Tonite,” or CBS and “CBS Evening Nws.”) By spelling the show incorrectly, it means that particular telecast won’t hurt a show’s weekly, yearly or season ratings averages. If anything, it could improve them.
Over the year, each broadcast news network has used this practice to help protect its numbers. GMA excluded the entire week of Christmas 2019, and Nightly was a perpetrator on numerous instances in 2017, including in June of that year, and the broadcast was retitled Nitely News. Even this summer, ABC and NBC excluded broadcasts around Memorial Day and July 4 weekend.
As mentioned, this is a well-known practice, and it’s not a particularly good one. While all of these networks have behaved badly at various points over time, one network seems to be going a little overboard this summer.
CBS News has been misspelling (or what is more properly known as “retitling”) each Friday broadcast of The CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell from the start of June through July 24, referring to the broadcast as “CBS-EVENING-NWS.” Because Friday is traditionally the lowest-rated day of the week, this in essence gives a boost to the broadcast’s weekly ratings averages. CBS Evening News has been rated on four days (Monday-Thursday) during this time period, whereas ABC World News Tonight with David Muir and NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt have mostly been sticking with the traditional five days of rating the weekday evening newscasts throughout the summer.
Now, it’s worth keeping in mind that CBS News has been third in the evenings for decades, and removing each Friday broadcast from the weekly ratings doesn’t mean that Evening News is suddenly going to give World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News a run for their money in the ratings department.
Nevertheless, it’s still not a great look.
“It is a standard industry practice to retitle broadcasts when there are irregularities in the schedule, unusual viewing disruptions or patterns, holidays and sports preemptions,” CBS News told TVNewser in a statement. “Across the board, we have seen viewing disruptions, and it’s imperative that the ratings are truly representative of the audience.”
That is true. Viewing patterns are erratic these days and the confluence of events (coronavirus coverage and news conferences, protests, special reports for funerals, etc.) have had an noticeable impact on programming across all dayparts, and caused interruptions across the country, sometimes justifying retitling.
However, neither ABC nor NBC is retitling as often as CBS has been this summer. Not even close. It’s pretty simple.
In addition to retitling CBS Evening News each Friday from the start of June through July 24, it has also retitled CBS Sunday Morning, which for decades has been the No. 1 news program in its time period, starting with June 14 through Aug. 2. It has submitted the broadcasts as “SUNDAY MORNING-ALT.” This means none of these broadcasts will count toward the monthly and year-end ratings average.
Additionally, we hear that the Aug. 2 broadcasts of CBS Sunday Morning and Face the Nation were preempted in the West Palm Beach, Fla., market (WPEC-TV) due to hurricane coverage.
Speaking of Face the Nation, CBS has been retitling original broadcasts of its Sunday public affairs program with a bit more frequency in recent weeks, reporting July broadcasts as “FACE-NATION.”
But that wasn’t happening in between the time period of March 16-May 17 (the heart of the Covid-19 pandemic for the Northeast), when Face the Nation averaged 3.86 million total viewers, its largest average audience ever dating to the 1987-1988 season.
NBC’s Meet the Press still finished the quarter at No. 1, ahead of Face the Nation, ABC’s This Week and Fox News Sunday in both Total Viewers and Adults 25-54 for the 10th consecutive quarter.
To kick off Q3, CBS retitled Face the Nation each Sunday in July, including the July 4 holiday weekend. ABC and NBC also retitled their respective Sunday shows on the July 4 weekend, and the three networks did not count the final Sunday of the month. The July 26 broadcast of Meet the Press was preempted for the season finale of the 2019-2020 English Premier League season.
Simply put, NBC’s Meet the Press, NBC Nightly News and Sunday Today and ABC’s World News Tonight and This Week aren’t retitling their broadcasts with the same frequency that CBS News is with some of its shows right now. While some readers may think to themselves, “Who really cares? Everyone does this at one time or another,” the newscasts should at least attempt to remain on a level playing field.