Evening Newscasts Ending Year Surprisingly Strong

By SteveK 

NBC Nightly News EP Bob Epstein has been on the job for two weeks. He’s off to a great start. The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams saw its best ratings in nearly two years last week, and the week prior, had some of the best ratings of 2008.

“We’ve just not let go,” Epstein tells TVNewser. “The economy is at the forefront of every viewer’s mind. It’s the story we’re just continuing to do.”

But it wasn’t just NBC. The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric saw its best ratings in nearly two years as well.

“Who knows in what combination these factors influence the ratings,” CBS News SVP Paul Friedman tells TVNewser. “All we know is going up beats the hell out of the alternative.”

ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson is up too — seeing its best ratings last week since the week of the presidential election, and has added viewers when compared to the same week last year.

What? Wasn’t there supposed to be a post-election slump following the record ratings of the presidential race? (Albeit mostly on cable.)

It’s the economy, stupid. Or so says Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report. “In general, the nightly newscasts didn’t get the boost from the election that the cable channels got,” Tyndall tells TVNewser. “But they didn’t get the drop off that the cable channels got. Of the two major dominating stories of 2008, the election and the recession, networks have been better than cable channels at the economic beat and the cable channels better at the political beat.”

But that’s just the beginning.

“Generally speaking, the recession will be very good for these newscasts,” says Tyndall. “A lot of times people are commuting while they are on. Mass layoffs will be very good for them. They are not the type of programs to be time-shifted or TiVo’ed. If you’re watching it, you’re there.”

Friedman isn’t buying into the economics/politics angle. “I wouldn’t concede cable did a better job on politics. I would concede they did more,” he says.

And Epstein looks to the meat of the broadcast. “Clearly we can tap into their expertise and we’ve done that,” he says of CNBC’s daily contribution to Nightly News. “In the past, the economy has been the beat of maybe one correspondent. On any day we can look at ‘What’s the story today, what’s the best way to cover it.’ It really gives us a whole playing field to deal with.

It’s a less traditional approach to approaching the story day-by-day.”

The success of Couric’s broadcast last week could be attributed to the types of stories not ordinarily seen during the 22-minute evening newscasts — lengthy “exclusive” reports which aired Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

But Tyndall downplays that impact on Couric’s recent growth. “I’m sure that can’t be driving viewers,” Tyndall says. “The one thing you do do if you run long features is there’s less chance for channel switching.”

According to Tyndall’s analysis of the three network broadcasts, the Gov. Rod Blagojevich scandal was covered more than any other story last week — most on NBC and CBS. The Pew Research Center’s PEJ News Coverage Index puts the financial crisis as the most covered news story. (The weekly PEJ index covers 48 different outlets from five media sectors: print, online, network TV, cable and radio.)

So, is it the stories that caused the spike in viewership for Couric and Williams? Says Tyndall, “The best thing I can come up with is it was really cold last week and people stayed home.”

But as the news networks look to 2009, any growth is good. “You cannot continue to be serious about your work in this business unless you believe if you do good work it will pay off,” Friedman says. “[Evening News EP Rick Kaplan] and Katie and the staff and correspondents have been doing good work.”

Epstein compliments his anchor as well. “We have Brian’s approach to it — a no-nonsense, sensible approach,” he says. “And we find moments in the program to look at what else is going on in the country and world. It’s not all bad.

“We’re not throttling back at all in the next couple weeks, but we certainly have a huge year ahead of us.”