The final Nielsen numbers for the just-completed 2018-2019 network news season are in, and ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir again finished first in total viewers and NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt beat its rivals in key demographics.
But viewership was flat or down across the board, even as the networks seized on the numbers for bragging rights.
ABC News touted that it won the season in total viewers for a third year in a row, and that it increased its margin over NBC Nightly News by 37%. NBC News placed ads in the New York Times promoting the fact that Nightly News, Today and Meet the Press won the demos for a fourth year in a row — and it also is touting it is No. 1 in the key news demo of adults 25-54 for a 12th straight season, and No. 1 in adults 18-49 for the 23rd season in a row.
CBS News, meanwhile, was again in third place but is quick to note that the past year was one of disruption; Norah O’Donnell succeeded Jeff Glor on July 15.
The broader takeaway, though, is a kind of good news/bad news situation.
The glass half-empty: Viewership fell across all categories, whether in total viewers, or in the key demographics craved by advertises, adults 25-54 and adults 18-49. The half-full version: Average audiences of evening news are still multiples of cable news networks, even though the traditional broadcast shows don’t draw nearly the attention on Twitter or other social media.
Almin Karamehmedovic, executive producer of World News Tonight, said the nightly newscast is still “appointment television,” as viewers “want to get a clear picture of what is going on in the world out there. That is not one story in one city.”
Here’s where things stand with each of the nightly newscasts:
Muir, who just passed five years in the anchor chair, traveled 18 times over the season including a recent trip to Iraq for a report on the fight against ISIS, a trek to Afghanistan to report on the fight against the Taliban, and to France to report exclusively from inside the Notre Dame cathedral after the devastating fire.
Karamehmedovic says that Muir has been “in kind of a steady climb” in his years as anchor. “His eagerness and willingness to search for stories is what is connecting with the American audience,” he said, adding that he has built up a trust with viewers, and that has allowed him to “cut through the noise” of the current polarized landscape.
“What you see is what you get,” Karamehmedovic said. “He is the same person behind the scenes as he is on camera.”
Total viewers for World News Tonight were flat year over year, but the network notes it has narrowed the gap with NBC Nightly News in the 18-49 and 25-54 demos. The caveat is that all of the evening news broadcasts shed viewers in those categories in the past year.
Karamehmedovic also cited some of the regular segments on World News Tonight he says are resonating with audiences including “America Strong” and “Made in America,” as ways to show how the U.S. has “way more in common than our differences.”
“It is more important than ever to be straightforward and to connect with the American audience as a whole,” Karamehmedovic said.
Holt on Tuesday interviewed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his first U.S. sit-down. In August, Holt traveled to Iran and interviewed Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, as well as to El Paso following the mass shootings and to Normandy for the D-Day anniversary. The newscast also launched a criminal justice reform series, “Justice for All,” and Holt is leading a network-wide initiative related to the topic.
Executive producer Jennifer Suozzo said the newscast has distinguished itself by “a combination of profiling Lester more [in the broadcast], setting the agenda, and concentrating on stories that people want to hear and that resonate with them.”
She said that Holt’s trips have helped highlight the human sides of a story. “Could he have anchored the El Paso shootings from New York? Sure, but you want to feel what they are feeling on the ground there.”
She also says that viewers still crave the type of evening news broadcast with a broad spectrum of stories that let viewers decide how they feel about a topic “after you present it to me in a fair and accurate way.”
“My message to the Nightly News team is always that we lead, we set the agenda, we tell the story that is happening as it is. We don’t sugarcoat it. We play it very straightforward,” she said
CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell
In the most recent summer quarter, the newscast experienced a larger percentage drop-off in viewers 25-54 than its competitors, according to the most recent Nielsen data.
O’Donnell took the reins of the broadcast during that period, and the newscast is still a bit of a work in progress. Network executives say there are more changes to come, as the newscast moves to Washington, D.C. later this fall, the only broadcast network evening newscast to base in the district.
“I am incredibly pleased,” said Kim Godwin, EVP News at the network. “We are really pleased where we are right now. We are focused on great content and great journalism.”
She noted that from the start, O’Donnell has been in the field on stories, and was the only anchor to base in Florida during Hurricane Dorian and then travel to the Bahamas to report on the devastation. She also traveled to El Paso and reported from Kennedy Space Center for the Apollo 11 anniversary with an interview with Jeff Bezos and Caroline Kennedy. The broadcast also has established a regular feature segment, “On the Road with Steve Hartman.”
Next month, Jay Shaylor, a veteran of CNN’s The Situation Room, will take over as executive producer of the broadcast.
Godwin said that in Washington, O’Donnell will have greater access to national and world leaders and that the move “will distinguish us even more, going into an election year. We’ll also continue to be focused on the rest of the country, and covering the issues that will matter to viewers.”