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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In 2006, three trends stood out regarding the audience for network news:

  • There was yet another decline in the total number of evening news viewers. While NBC’s evening newscast lost viewers, ABC’s audience size remained the same. At CBS, the audience for the evening newscast over all remained the same even though Katie Couric’s debut in September produced a dramatic surge. By the end of the year the CBS Evening News audience had shrunk roughly 26% from that momentary peak.
  1. In the race for the top spot in the evening, there were no changes in rankings, but ABC, with a new anchor and focus, may be closing the gap with NBC.
  • After a year of departures and new faces in the anchor chair, morning news lost viewers, and its total audience size was at its smallest level of this decade.

Nightly Newscasts

Despite new anchors, promotional campaigns and press attention, the audience for the evening network news programs continued to shrink in 2006.

The total evening network news audience now stands at around 26 million, down about a million from the year before. It has now dropped by about 1 million a year for the last 25 years.

Ratings, which count the number of television sets in the U.S. tuned to a given program, declined almost 4% between November 2005 and November 2006, falling to 18.2, down from 18.9 in November 2005, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.1 That is about the same pace as in recent years.2

Meanwhile, share — the percentage of just those sets in use at a given time that are tuned to a program — declined more, 8%, to 34 in November 2006, from 37 the same time in 2005. Now, only about a third of the TV sets in use at the dinner hour are tuned to the network news.

There may be some audiences left out of Nielsen’s methodology, however. For example, ratings may fail to capture television sets in bars, restaurants, college dormitories, military barracks, nursing homes, prisons, and other institutions.

Evening News Viewership, All Networks
November 1980 to November 2006
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
* Ratings taken for month of November.

Comparing the 2006 data with figures from 5, 25, and nearly 40 years earlier puts the trend in clear relief. In 1969, the three network newscasts had a combined 50 rating and an 85 share. In 1980, the year that CNN was launched, they had a 37 rating and a 75 share.3 As of November 2006, ratings had fallen 64% since 1969, 51% since 1980, and 23% since 2000. Share, meanwhile, had fallen 60% since 1969, 55% since 1980, and 23% since 2000.

Evening News Ratings
November 1980 to November 2006
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
* Ratings taken for month of November.

We have outlined the factors behind the decline in earlier editions of this report. Those factors including changing lifestyles, work schedules and commute times; competition from cable and the Internet; cutbacks in news budgets and personnel; and even some apparent general decline in interest in news.4

Yet the data suggest there has been only a relatively small decline in TV watching itself, or even, cumulatively, watching news on TV, if one includes all the news available. Using 2006 survey data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the percentage of people who report watching television news has actually increased 2 points since 2000 (though down 4 points over all in the last 10 years). Furthermore, the amount of time people spend watching news (measured in minutes spent “yesterday,” as the survey phrases it) is up since the beginning of this century and down just 2 minutes a day over the last 10 years. 5

Nightly News Audience Demographics

One well-noted trend in network television is that the audience for the evening newscast skews older than it does for other media.

In 2006, the median age of nightly news viewers stayed at roughly 60 years, according to data provided to PEJ by MagnaGlobal USA.6

Those numbers suggest that the three broadcast networks have considerable work to do if they hope to bring the average age into the 25-to-54 range, the demographic group most prized by marketers. It is not clear whether that can happen on television, or to what extent younger viewers ever made up the nightly news audience.

One potential new component in this is whether the networks can get younger viewers to watch their news through other means — online, on podcasts, or downloaded to other devices on demand. Younger consumers are earlier adapters to these newer, more mobile technologies.7

Median Age of Nightly News Viewers
2002, 2004, 2005, 2006
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MagnaGlobal USA

The Race Among the Networks

Despite declining audiences, the race for the top slot in network evening news ratings remains intense, the subject of significant press coverage, and has significant financial implications. At stake are tens of millions of advertising dollars, and the changing line-up of anchors in 2006 suggested that some of those dollars might change hands. Charles Gibson replaced Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff at ABC in late May 2006. Katie Couric took over from the interim anchor Bob Schieffer at CBS in September 2006. NBC News continued to showcase Brian Williams, who was in his third year since Tom Brokaw left the anchor desk.

By the year’s end the anchor changes not only failed to stanch the loss of audience, but they also did not affect the network news leadership board, at least not yet.

As of January 2007, NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams was still on top. In November 2006, Nightly News had a rating of 6.5, a 12 share and an average viewing audience of around 9.5 million a night. Those figures represented a drop of 10% in ratings and a 14% decline in share from November 2005. That is a significant drop, the biggest at NBC since 1982.

The second-place newscast, ABC’s World News, meanwhile, seemed to be closing the gap with NBC by keeping its ratings steady. Its November-to-November ratings were unchanged from 2005 to 2006, at 6.2. And its share stayed the same as well, at 12. (The number of viewers dropped 1%, and now stands at roughly 8.8 million a night.)

On Election night 2006 — always a hotly contested night among the networks — ABC managed to beat its competitors. Appearing a half-hour before the other networks and immediately following the popular Dancing With the Stars, ABC attracted 9.7 million viewers that night, compared to 7 million for NBC and 6.3 million for CBS, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.8

The most obvious factor that might explain ABC’s new-found strength was its new anchor, Charles Gibson. Gibson arrived after 16 months of turmoil at ABC. First, Peter Jennings, the networks anchor for 22 years, lost a battle to cancer. Next, the newly appointed co-anchor Bob Woodruff was seriously injured by a bomb in Iraq, and the co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas, never slotted to front the program alone, left the anchor chair to spend more time with her new baby. As one news division staff member said, “Morale is starting to suffer…People are wondering ‘When are we finally going to have a captain of the ship?’ “9

In May, ABC News’s president, David Westin, officially turned to Gibson, who had been the long-time popular co-anchor of ABC’s morning news show, Good Morning America. At 63, he was a recognizable face for the network’s viewers, his tenure on the morning program spanning nearly 20 of his 30 years at ABC. Among other things, he had filled in during Jennings’s treatment for lung cancer. After the network’s effort to signal change with Vargas and Woodruff, Gibson’s move to the anchor chair spoke to continuity and familiarity, reassurance. That, after all that had happened, seemed to be a signal the network wanted to send internally and publicly. “Sometimes, the tortoise comes out OK,” Gibson told the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after the announcement, alluding to the 30 years it took him to ascend to the evening news anchor chair.10

The most anticipated change, the most expensive salary, and the biggest story in network news of 2006 were at CBS: the arrival of Katie Couric as the new anchor of the CBS Evening News. Before Couric’s debut, the veteran Schieffer, who let his corps of correspondents take the lead, had by early May come within 310,000 viewers of second-place ABC in the key 25-to-54 age range.11 While CBS’s management was busy planning the future, Schieffer’s interim act had become the hot newscast in network TV, with noticeable momentum in the numbers and a growing confidence on the air. Schieffer, in other words, became a hard act to follow.

After a $10 million promotional campaign and with a $15 million annual salary, Couric took over as anchor on September 5, 2006. The Couric newscast had some new features, studied changes in look and manner, and a slightly softer feel.

And it was fast out of the gate. It opened with 13.6 million viewers — the largest audience for the network’s newscast in eight years. And much of that audience surge, according to Variety, came at the expense of NBC News.12

Through the fall, however, Couric’s numbers quickly declined. For the full month of September, CBS Evening news averaged 8.1 million viewers a night. In October, the average was 7.3 million, according to data from Nielsen.13

In November, the number rose to 7.8 million viewers (a rating of 5.5 and a 10 share). That meant that the audience for the CBS Evening News in November was virtually unchanged from November the year before (though share dropped by one point).14

Yet Couric’s audience by year end was still down by roughly 25% from when she began.

All this deserves a closer look. On the one hand, the press attention paid, the promotional money spent, and the effort by CBS to rethink the evening news, all might have occasioned a reason for more people to watch and keep watching the evening news. On the other side, history shows that no new anchor has ever been able to shake up the rankings in the first year. Reinforcing that, the popularity and success of the local shows that precede the evening news, the so-called lead-ins, are not a strong point for CBS and may not change much in the coming year. According to the network television analyst Andrew Tyndall, “ Couric’s arrival hasn’t changed that formula. That’s something that cannot be changed in a few months.“15

CBS has, however, tried to change the nature of Couric’s program, to counter-program in a sense. Particularly early on, it offered a noticeably lighter mix of news than the other networks. In Couric’s first week, according to content analysis by Tyndall, ABC offered 46 minutes of hard news against 44 for NBC and just 19 minutes at CBS. CBS News seemed to backing off this strategy by November, according to Tyndall’s data.16

Couric also is more the star of her program than are her competitors, doing more stories herself and taking up more air time, though there is an overall trend toward a more robust anchor presence. According to data from Tyndall, the amount of coverage devoted to non-reporter stories, such as commentary provided by the anchor, surged from 1,999 minutes on all three networks in 2004 to 2,493 minutes in 2006, an increase of almost 25%.17

Publicly, CBS management says it is focused on Couric’s impact in the long term. “People who want to judge this as a success or failure after eight or nine weeks, I think are missing the big picture,“ Sean McManus, CBS News president, said in November. “Our commitment to Katie is long-term. I have said this from Day 1: I am much more concerned about the ratings in November of 2007, 2008, 2009 than I am in 2006,“ he said.18 Even in early March 2007, when CBS dumped Couric’s executive producer, Rome Hartman, and hired Rick Kaplan, a producer with previous stints at ABC News, CNN and MSNBC, the network remained optimistic: “Everyone is foursquare behind Katie. I don’t have the slightest doubts about Katie’s talent,” Kaplan told the New York Times.

Privately, CBS executives have told the news staff something a little different. In one meeting, news people were told that the network expected to lose a noticeable number of Schieffer viewers in the weeks after the new Couric show began, but at the same time to gain new viewers who would migrate from morning news to evening to watch Couric. Then, from that new base, in which about a quarter of the audience would be new, they would build.

The loss of loyal viewers has happened. The migration of new viewers has not.

Indeed, the program with the relatively stronger trend line is the one that is evoking the most traditional ethos and the oldest anchor, ABC’s program and Gibson. In a way, Gibson has taken over the Schieffer chair, the most familiar, comforting, avuncular anchor, in the style of a Cronkite or Huntley-Brinkley.

Evening News Viewership, by Network
1980-2006, November -November
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license


In last year’s edition of the annual report, we noted the relative stability of “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

In 2006, however, the audience for “The NewsHour” declined.

According to data provided by the NewsHour research department, roughly 2.4 million people watched each night from October 2005 to September 2006 and the program averaged an approximate cumulative audience of 6.3 million people each week.19 Both figures are down from previous years, when the program had around 3 million viewers a night and 8 million viewers a week.20

What could account for such a drop? According to John Fuller, senior director of research for PBS, two factors have contributed to the decline. First, there is “increased competition from proliferating cable networks.” Second, Nielsen has made changes to how its measures its viewing audience by switching from analog meters to digital ones. That replacement, according to Fuller, has contributed to an “understatement” of the program’s actual audience figures.21 It would, however, explain a marked drop in such a short time.

Other observers cite additional factors. The NewsHour has changed little in format over the years, some argue, and could change more.

Morning News

The year 2006 was also a turbulent one for network news morning shows. Two marquee anchors — Couric and Gibson — departed for the evening news. And the total viewership for the morning news shows dropped for the second consecutive year.

As of November 2006, total morning viewership stood at 13.6 million, down from 14.1 million the same month a year earlier, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. That was a 3.5% drop and put total viewership at its lowest point in this decade.

In 2006, some industry analysts had wondered whether ABC’s Good Morning America might surpass NBC’s Today Show after Couric, co-anchor of Today for 15 years and 10 consecutive years at the top, left for CBS Evening News. Unlike the more stable evening newscasts, changes in morning news anchors have in the past resulted in more immediate changes in audience figures. Viewers left en masse, for example, when Deborah Norville replaced Jane Pauley on the Today Show in 1990. Then the numbers again reversed when Couric was chosen as Norville’s replacement one year later.

No such change happened in 2006. The “Today Show” lead held steady, remaining around 700,000 viewers ahead of Good Morning America, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.

Morning News Viewership, All Networks
November 1993 to November 2006
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
* Ratings taken for month of November.
Morning News Viewership, by Network
November 1993 to November 2006
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
* Ratings taken for month of November.

In November 2006, the Today Show averaged 5.8 million viewers and remained the top morning news show. That was a 3 percent decline from the year before and the program’s third consecutive year of declining viewership. But it still fared better than the other networks.

Good Morning America lost a greater portion of viewers over the year than the other networks. In November 2006, it averaged 5.1 million viewers each morning, down 4 percent from the same month in 2005.

The Early Show on CBS remained a distant third with an average of 2.7 million viewers each morning, Nielsen Data from November 2006 showed, a number virtually unchanged from a year earlier.

NBC’s strategy for Couric’s replacement may have helped maintain its position at the top. The network chose Meredith Vieira, a former CBS News correspondent as well as a former host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? She had also been co-anchor on The View, a talk show mainly geared toward women, who make up 70% of the morning news audience.22 NBC also extended co-anchor Matt Lauer’s contract through 2011, for a reported $13 million a year.23

At ABC News, Charlie Gibson’s departure from Good Morning America to anchor the evening newscast left the long-term star Diane Sawyer together with co-anchor Robin Roberts and a newcomer, Chris Cuomo, son of Mario Cuomo, the former governor from New York. There was speculation in 2006 that Sawyer might leave the program, but it was unclear whether she planned to do so.

Good Morning America also suffered some other losses. In late 2005, its long-time weatherman, Tony Perkins, left the show to be the weather anchor in his native Washington, D.C. Then in June 2006, Ben Sherwood, the executive producer, resigned to care for his ailing mother. The program was criticized for dawdling on finding an adequate successor for Sherwood.24

CBS’s Early Show remained committed to a four-anchor format. But in early December, Rene Syler announced she was leaving the show to write a book, and it was not immediately clear whether CBS brass would seek a replacement or rely on the remaining three anchors.

According to Broadcasting and Cable, the Early Show may not be receiving the full attention of the CBS News management, which admits it is more fully focused right now on the launch of the new Evening News with Katie Couric.25 CBS was making some efforts, however, to link the two shows in viewers’ minds. The program’s theme song, for instance, which had previously been an instrumental version of a Sting recording, was retooled to sound almost exactly like the one used at the start of the evening newscast.

Is declining morning viewership a trend? In last year’s edition of the report, after one year of decline, we were hesitant to say that. With all the turmoil of 2006 in the mornings, it may still be premature to make such a declaration, though more competition looms in the distance. Mornings are becoming an important daypart in cable, with the Fox News Channel’s cable programs attracting an audience of roughly 700,000 viewers in the fourth quarter of 2006, according to Nielsen data. And Fox has now entered the broadcast morning competition. Fox’s morning entry, the Morning Show With Mike and Juliet, will air on all the owned-and-operated Fox affiliates, according to media reports.26 The show’s anchors, Mike Jerrick and Juliet Huddy, were former co-hosts of the afternoon program Dayside, which is broadcast on Fox News.

In addition, longer commute times in the U.S. have people leaving their houses earlier. And the Internet, as well as early-morning local news, offers people a way to check weather, traffic, headlines and other news items that the morning shows once claimed as a franchise. Many news professionals view those developments as structural factors that may make the morning programs less vital than they once were.

Others argue that the soft feature content of the shows also may make them more vulnerable, particularly after the first half-hour. That debate is not a new one.

Morning News Ratings
1993-2006, November to November
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
* Ratings taken for month of November.
Morning News Share
1993-2006, November to November
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
* Ratings taken for month of November.

Morning News Demographics

In previous years, the network morning shows, in their bid for ad-worthy viewers, had been more successful than their evening news counterparts at driving down the average age of their audiences. In 2006, however, the median age actually climbed a year, to 54. According to data from Magna Global USA, NBC’s Today still enjoyed the youngest audience at 53.2, while ABC had the oldest, 54.7. CBS’s Early Show, meanwhile, got a bit older in 2006, at just under 53.7.

Median Age of Morning News Viewers
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MagnaGlobal USA

The Sunday Shows

The Sunday morning network talk programs, almost completely political in topic, may not be watched very much by mass audiences, but they have a long tradition of making news and thus providing quotes for Monday morning newspaper, television, and Internet headlines. They also attract a wealthy, highly educated audience whose members are among the heaviest news consumers — and highly sought-after by advertisers.

According to Nielsen Media Research, NBC’s Meet the Press with Tim Russert remained the most-watched Sunday talk show, a position it has held for nine straight years. In 2006, Meet the Press averaged roughly 3.8 million viewers, 33% more than second-place CBS’s Face the Nation, with 2.8 million. ABC’s This Week, which concludes the traditional roundtable format with clips from late-night comedy talk shows, averaged 2.5 million. In last place was Fox’s News Sunday, with an average of 1.3 million in 2006.