Is NBC Playing Games to Pad Its Ratings? No, It’s Playing the Game. (And Still Winning)

By Mark Joyella 

We learned yesterday that if you want, you can watch “NBC Nightly News” after it airs in its usual timeslot, at 6:30 p.m. ET. Yep. In many major markets, NBC has begun re-airing the network’s flagship newscast between 2 and 4 a.m. “The viewer response has been overwhelmingly positive,” an NBC News spokesperson told TVNewser. Imagine. You can watch a show hours after it ran on network TV? What is this, 2015??

Of course, no media story–especially one involving NBC–comes without controversy. And so it is with the NBC re-air, which the network insists was in the works well ahead of Brian Williams‘ exit from “Nightly” for a six month — or perhaps permanent — suspension.

Sources at CBS and ABC tell TVNewser they do not re-air their evening newscasts. The implication is that NBC is playing fast and loose with Nielsen rules in a transparent effort to puff up ratings for “Nightly News” amid a fierce challenge from “World News Tonight.” Those extra overnight viewers, the logic goes, are somehow unfairly inflating “Nightly” and helping it hold onto a slim lead. Here’s how the story played at The Wrap:


“NBC Nightly News” topped “ABC World News Tonight” in total viewers last week by a mere 11,000 total viewers — or did it?

Well, technically it did — at least by current Nielsen rules.

So they “technically” won? In TV, what would you call the opposite of a technical win? A moral victory, perhaps? Grow up. Advertisers don’t buy time based on any metric other than one–and it’s strictly technical, even sterile. Just add up the numbers.

The idea that viewers watching a re-air are somehow an unfair addition rejects everything happening in television, where “live only” ratings measurements are dead. The standard is “live plus same day,” which includes people who time shift, particularly via DVR.

It’s been five years since Janice Finkel-Greene, director of buying analytics for Magna Global told Adweek “the way people view television has changed, and a ratings stream with DVR playback included is much more representative of today’s audience. Rejecting live-plus-same-day program data stream because it might marginally overstate commercial viewing is a head-in-the-sand approach.” Today, for primetime network shows, the standard is “live plus three,” or viewing within three days of air–including DVR and video-on-demand. And the trend is moving ever more swiftly toward “live plus 7,” which would include all viewing within a week.

So late night news re-airs are hardly ratings-driven gimmicks. The TV news business has long had within-the-letter-of-the-law tricks, employed in tight races and ratings periods, to protect top-rated shows or boost lagging ones. In local TV news, station executives will occasionally dump a late newscast on a night when the primetime numbers are expected to be weak, and run a “news special” in its place, thereby removing a poorly-rated newscast from the station’s average–because this is about money, after all.

But what NBC is doing isn’t that. It’s merely pushing “Nightly” in front of as many eyeballs as it can, which is, of course, the nature of television. That’s why Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren reminds viewers at the end of her show to DVR “On the Record,” and why CNN’s Anderson Cooper makes the same reminder each night on “AC 360.” Don’t forget to watch, and if you can’t watch the show live, record it and watch it later. It all counts.

When NBC announced in 2005 that “Nightly News” would be available, in its entirety, for free, every night after 10 p.m. on (then an innovative idea), the network explained it as a sign of changing times. “By partnering with NBC News to offer ‘Nightly News’ in its entirety, we’re giving news consumers the flexibility to watch the program on their own schedule, on whatever medium they choose,” said Charlie Tillinghast, president of

Today, you can watch a stream of “Nightly” within about an hour of the first network feed. You can listen to “Nightly” in podcast form, via VOD, or on SiriusXM radio. Not all of it bumps up ratings, but it does help build an audience. And today, yes, you can also watch full video-on-demand episodes of “The CBS Evening News” and ABC’s “World News Tonight” because that’s simply smart business.

The technology has changed, the way we calculate ratings has changed, but the ratings spin? That remains rooted in the past.