MBPT Spotlight: This Just In: Broadcast Networks’ Evening News Gets Q4 Viewership Surge

During the recently completed fourth quarter of 2013, 23.7 million viewers per night cumulatively watched the three broadcast network evening news telecasts, up about 700,000 viewers from fourth quarter 2012, according to Nielsen data.

Yes, 16.6 million of those viewers each night were 55-plus years old, amounting to 70% of the newscasts’ cumulative viewership each night, but for pharmaceutical advertisers, for instance, that size audience, concentrated in one half-hour, is like a gift that keeps on giving.

In fact, there isn’t much programming in all of television—except for the recent NFL playoffs—that averages as much as 23.7 million viewers per half-hour (as Tom Brokaw seemed to be saying in his recent comments about the popularity of the network news). And it’s been well documented that in addition to the drug companies, financial companies and luxury automakers also love to target the older demo, particularly at ad rates that are much lower than broadcast primetime. For the evening news, that’s mighty good news.

And speaking of broadcast primetime, this season, the Big Three—ABC, CBS and NBC—have cumulatively averaged about 24.5 million viewers per night. That compares to the 39 million viewers per night they cumulatively averaged during the 1999-2000 season, a decline of 37%. Conversely, the evening newscasts of the Big Three, with their 23.7 million average per nightly half-hour, are down only about 20% in cumulative viewership when compared to the 1999-2000 season when they averaged 28.8 million.

Most advertisers who buy the evening news telecasts do buy all three, and with the audience demographics so similar, the viewership of all can be cumed to come up with one big number.

It’s interesting, given that precipitous drop, that no one ever writes that the broadcast networks might consider getting out of the primetime entertainment programming business because of dwindling ratings, but for years, articles have been written about how the broadcast networks’ half-hour nightly newscasts could be scrapped. Yet, much like the long-running CBS Sunday night news magazine 60 Minutes, the broadcast network evening news telecasts keep on ticking.

Despite its well-documented problems with the morning news show Today, NBC during fourth quarter was the evening news leader among the Big Three. The NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams averaged 8.9 million viewers, a 1.3 18-49 demo rating, a 1.9 25-54 rating and a 7.6 55-plus rating. While 8.9 million viewers watch the NBC Nightly News each night that includes 1.6 million 18-49 viewers and 2.3 million 25-54 viewers. If you compare that with some of the broadcast primetime series demos on any given night, the Nightly News’ younger numbers are competitive.

ABC’s World News Tonight With Diane Sawyer averaged 7.9 million viewers in fourth quarter, with a 1.1 18-49 rating, a 1.7 25-54 rating and a 6.7 55-plus rating. The demo ratings translate to 1.4 million viewers 18-49, 2 million viewers 25-54 and 5.5 million viewers 55-plus.

CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley averaged 6.9 million viewers in fourth quarter, with a 0.9 18-49 demo rating, a 1.4 25-54 rating and a 6.0 55-plus rating. That translates to 1.1 million viewers 18-49, 1.7 million viewers 25-54 and 4.9 million viewers 55-plus.

Things Are Looking Up

NBC Nightly News has the most women viewers with 5 million, followed by ABC World News Tonight with 4.8 million and CBS Evening News with 3.8 million. On the male side, NBC Nightly News draws 3.9 million a night, while both ABC World News Tonight and CBS Evening News pull in 3.1 million men.

And the newscasts, at least in the fourth quarter, were trending upward. Both NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News were up 300,000 viewers this past fourth quarter compared to the fourth quarter of 2012. ABC World News Tonight was up 100,000 viewers.

The viewership of the newscasts has steadily gotten older though. During the 1999-2000 season, NBC Nightly News had a median age viewer of 58, while ABC World News Tonight and CBS Evening News had median age viewers of 59. During the just-completed fourth quarter of 2013, ABC World News Tonight’s median age viewer was 63, while the median age viewer for NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News was 64.

The cumulative 70% of the three networks’ evening news viewers in the 55-plus demo in the fourth quarter of 2013 is a bump up from the 67% in 2012. During the 1999-2000 season, that percentage was 56%. But as long as there are categories that still find value in reaching the boomer segment of the population, the broadcast networks will continue to find great value in those half-hours.

The Face Is Familiar…

As popular a draw as the evening news telecasts still are to many Americans, there is also a segment that seems to have no clue who the news anchors are. The Huffington Post recently cited a Pew Research Center survey on the news shows which revealed that while NBC Nightly News is the most watched newscast each night, only 27% of those polled know who its anchor, Brian Williams, is. By age, only 15% of adults 18-29 correctly identified Williams from a photo. Among adults 30-49, 26% correctly identified him. Among adults 50-64 the percentage rose to 31% and among adults 65-plus, 34% correctly identified Williams as anchor of NBC’s Nightly News.

In a similar survey in 1985, 47% of those polled were able to identify then-CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather.

But despite the results of the Pew survey, 8.9 million viewers per night are watching Williams on the NBC Nightly News, which right now makes him top dog among the anchors. Of course, Williams did try to branch out into primetime, hosting the weekly news magazine show Rock CenterwithBrian Williams for two seasons but his ratings paled in comparison to his Nightly News viewership.

During the 2011-12 season with Rock Center airing mostly on Wednesday nights, the show averaged only 3.8 million viewers with a paltry 0.9 18-49 demo rating. During the 2012-13 season with the show airing mostly on Thursday nights, it averaged 3.9 million viewers with the same 0.9 18-49 demo rating. So clearly, Williams’ evening news viewers did not follow him to primetime.