Network Evening News Viewership Drops From Levels At Start Of Pandemic Shutdowns

(L-R) David Muir, Lester Holt and Norah O'Donnell Mega

A year after the start of the Covid-19 shutdowns, network evening news viewership fell to levels resembling pre-pandemic habits.

Viewership for World News Tonight with David Muir, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell was down for the week of March 8 compared to the same period a year earlier, according to Nielsen.

For the week, World News Tonight has 8.86 million viewers, NBC Nightly News had 7.29 million and CBS Evening News had 5.34 million. For the same period a year earlier, World News Tonight averaged 9.92 million, NBC Nightly News was at 8.46 million and CBS Evening News posted 6.07 million. Those are declines of 11%, 14% and 12% respectively.

Last week, all of the networks marked the one-year anniversary of the Covid-19 shutdowns, which led to mass closures, a cratering economy and widespread stay-at-home orders. Those extraordinary 2020 news cycles also triggered a resurgence in evening news ratings. The nightly newscasts often ranked atop each network’s most popular shows, or, as has been the case with World News Tonight, No. 1 in all of television. The numbers also were juiced as networks re-aired the newscasts or scheduled additional live broadcasts.

The year-over-year comparison is of just one week from 2020, and it is of an extraordinary one at that: Not only was there the emerging national emergency but the Democratic primaries.

But it’s not altogether surprising that there would be a fall off at this point. In the 25-54 demo last week, World News Tonight averaged 1.7 milion, compared to 2.09 million a year earlier; NBC Nightly News posted 1.35 million vs. 1.93 million, and CBS Evening News had 939,000 versus 1.19 million.

Andrew Tyndall, analyst for The Tyndall Report, says that the total national news audience increases by about 10% on the very heaviest days of breaking news.

He emails that “the year-over-year drop-off for last week vs the same week in 2020 is a function of 2020 being so heavy rather than 2021 being so light.”

He said that he anticipates a drop in the news audience this spring and summer as the “pandemic driven headlines become less serious” and fewer people are staying inside their homes as public health mandates are relaxed and vaccinations allow a return to regular habits. There also is the absence of Donald Trump from the news cycle, which bumped up ratings, and the simple fact that daylight savings time has typically seen a decline in evening news viewership.

Another comparison is the same week in 2019, which was much calmer than the sensational week of 2020. Two years ago, World News Tonight posted 8.64 million viewers, compared to 8.18 million for Nightly News and 6.11 million for CBS Evening News, then anchored by Jeff Glor.

All of the networks have been trumpeting what they see as bright spots: World News Tonight has ranked at the top of the newscasts for the past 50 weeks in total viewers and key demographics, including 25-54 and 18-49. NBC has been pointing to additional digital viewership, including an average of 1 million views on YouTube for full episodes of Nightly News and the average viewer watching for nearly 13 minutes. CBS Evening News was the top telecast on the network last week in total viewers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and Wednesday and Friday in adults 25-54.

The comparisons of the coming weeks, though, could confirm expectations: Evening news ratings coming back down to earth.

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