McManus: Dead Heat in News Race

Oct 2, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Nearly a month into Katie Couric’s run as anchor of “CBS Evening News,” the nightly broadcast is not flying as high as it was during its first heady week. But for CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus, it is riding higher and proving more competitive at this point than he expected.

Preliminary national data from Nielsen Media Research for the first three days of last week showed that “Evening News” slipped back into third place in the competition for total viewership after three weeks of decline in that category.

After averaging 10.2 million viewers during the week of her Sept. 5 debut on CBS, Ms. Couric was averaging 7.7 million viewers last week.

However, only about 700,000 viewers separated first-place “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” from “Evening News,” which lagged only some 74,000 viewers behind ABC’s “World News With Charles Gibson” for the same three days last week.

The boost Ms. Couric’s arrival has given the newscast has been good news in terms of ad prices. CBS said scatter prices for “Evening News” spots not bought by the end of summer were “significantly” higher in September than they were in September 2005. While stressing that advertising deals vary greatly, a spokesman for CBS said the cost-per-thousand increases range from 30 percent to 40 percent on average.

In addition, the spokesman said, several advertisers have either joined the “Evening News” lineup or increased their commitments.

Mr. McManus doesn’t dismiss Ms. Couric’s slide, but he urged TV-savvy observers to focus on “Evening News”‘ performance in the category of adults 25 to 54 years old, the demographic group most sought after by advertisers in news programs.

“Older viewers are not watching as much,” Mr. McManus said in an interview last week. “Some of the gains that we would like that we aren’t achieving are in the 55-plus viewers. It looks preliminarily as if some of the older viewers may be sampling other broadcasts or not watching us as much as we would like.

“Having more total viewers is more a matter of pride than anything else, but obviously it’s an important sense of pride,” he said. “But as a practical matter, the most important group financially is the 25 to 54 group, and there we’re in a dead heat with NBC and ABC, which I think is remarkable.”

On Sept. 27, for example, “Evening News” earned a 2.1 rating among adults 25 to 54, while “Nightly News” and “World News” each had a 2.0 rating in the demo.

“That adds up to about 48 people in the Nielsen sample,” “World News” executive producer Jon Banner said. “That’s about as close as it can get. Maybe it will be a crapshoot for some time to come.”

Mr. McManus will take that.

“If somebody had told me we would be tied in the demo at this point, I would have said that would have been very difficult to achieve, because moving the demo that quickly is difficult to achieve,” Mr. McManus said. “Looking at this set of numbers, how could I be anything but encouraged that we’re accomplishing exactly what we wanted to: start to make the race competitive, which it certainly is.”

On Ms. Couric’s first night, when she attracted more than 13 million viewers, almost half of her audience consisted of viewers who generally don’t watch TV at that time of day; some 15 percent switched over from basic cable; and almost half had watched “CBS Evening News” the previous night, according to data from Nielsen Media Research released by other networks.

That analysis also indicated that about 5 percent of the first-night audience usually watched “World News” and 6 percent usually watched “NBC Nightly News.” Other research shows that by week two, there was more sampling of “Evening News” by “World News” viewers.

Trends Will Clarify

Some others with an interest in the evening news race said Ms. Couric’s audience trends won’t become more clear until at least November, a month that will start with mid-term elections that could be a referendum on the war in Iraq and that could change the majority party in the House and the Senate.

In the meantime, they say they see no need to rewrite their playbooks.

“We haven’t changed the program one iota in response to any other program. I’m genuinely happy with where we are,” said “Nightly News” executive producer John Reiss. By Ms. Couric’s third week, Sept. 18-22, “Nightly” was back in first place every evening.

Mr. McManus said that while some elements of “Evening News” will be tweaked or expanded, “freeSpeech,” which offers a variety of people a national soapbox, is not one of them. The segment has been a somewhat polarizing topic in the media-conservative talk show king Rush Limbaugh, who certainly doesn’t lack for opportunity to opine at length, was one of the first guest speakers.

HBO’s “Politically Incorrect” host Bill Maher was invited to appear on “freeSpeech.” He declined, claiming CBS told him he couldn’t talk about religion. Later, he said maybe it didn’t.

“I find the dialogue on `freeSpeech’ very, very encouraging. I’m extremely proud of the diversity of opinions,” Mr. McManus said. “It doesn’t make sense to change the show, since it’s getting results that really are better than I had hoped they would be.”

At least one of the advertisers new to the flagship newscast terrain, New York Life, also is expected to stay its course, which is to buy time in all three network newscasts.

Gene DeWitt, former president of the Syndicated Network Television Association and now chairman of DeWitt Media Strategies, said the idea of buying all three newscasts, known as roadblocking, was first “to ride on the coattails of the interest in Katie Couric-that paid off because we were in the first two episodes,” and then to efficiently reach a near prime-time-size audience for less-than-prime-time prices.

“Early evening news I think is highly negotiable,” Mr. DeWitt said. “It’s way cheaper, way cheaper.”