On Friday, June 22, the New York Times ran an article on page one of its business section about NBC News's loss of dominance. NBC News is "adrift", according to the article's authors, Bill Carter and Brian Stelter. Shows like "Today", "Meet The Press" and "NBC Nightly News" are all struggling with declining ratings. Specifically, "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams" has seen an 11% drop in ratings among the highly coveted 25-54 year-old age group. As follows is the article, reprinted in its entirety:
NBC News has long been a dominant presence on network television, regularly winning the ratings competition against its evening news and Sunday morning political show competitors, and reveling in the “Today” show’s 16-year winning streak in morning television, a record not broken until April.
Struggling with declining ratings across all three franchises, however, and with news this week that the network is preparing to replace Ann Curry on “Today,” NBC executives are facing a new narrative that is being embraced by the competition. For the first time in more than a decade, NBC News appears adrift.
NBC’s major news shows, including “NBC Nightly News” and “Meet the Press,” have lost ground to rivals in the last year, causing wider concerns about the health of the news division, which has been the No. 1 television news operation in America for the better part of two decades. For now it is still No. 1 by almost every measure, but it appears to be more vulnerable than it has been at any time in years.
The most visible manifestation of this is “Today.” The morning show is a profit center for the news division, raking in several hundred million dollars each year and effectively subsidizing other news shows.
NBC executives suggest that the impact of the end of the “Today” streak has been overstated, primarily because it continues to show strength in the category that is most important in generating television news revenue: viewers aged 25 to 54.
“Where it counts we have not had slippage,” said Steve Capus, the president of NBC News. “That’s what’s real. The rest is spin and noise.”
Beyond “Today,” which is down about 4 percent in total viewers and about 9 percent in that 25-54 age group, “NBC Nightly News” has declined about 11 percent among those 25-54. Its main rival, ABC’s “World News,” also is down about 8 percent. (CBS’s newscast is up 1 percent.) On Sundays, “Meet the Press” is still the most watched show, but its lead over the second place “Face the Nation” on CBS has shrunk to just 2 percent in total viewers, while “Nation” is now ahead in the 25-54 group.
And NBC’s effort to start a newsmagazine, “Rock Center,” led by its chief anchor, Brian Williams, has been greeted with some of the lowest ratings in prime time. NBC News remains committed to it, however.
The weaknesses across the news division probably would be considered marginal if they did not come at the same time as the apparent shift taking place in the morning. That change is under particular scrutiny because of the “Today” show’s status as the most profitable franchise in the history of television news.
“The ‘Today’ show is so important; the amount of money it makes is remarkable,” said Bill Wheatley, the former executive vice president of NBC News, who worked there for 30 years. The show has earned profits of up to $200 million a year in recent years, a longtime NBC executive who was not authorized to discuss the show’s finances said Thursday.
Ratings for news programs are affected by a wide array of factors, including talent transitions, weakness in prime time and late night programming, and changes in consumer behaviors. “Sometimes all of these things can happen at one time,” Mr. Wheatley said, noting that “the network is in bad shape.”
Indeed, NBC’s prime-time performance is as weak as any network has been in broadcasting history. Up until recently, the news programs had defied gravity in holding up so well.
Mr. Capus argued that they are still performing well despite the general collapse all around them. “This is a great news division, “ he said, “and still the industry leader.”
That lead includes the most important ranking: profits. Mr. Capus pointed to the recent conclusion of what are known as the annual upfront sales — when advertisers buy commercial time before the fall television season.
Despite the tightening of the morning race, Mr. Capus said NBC had increased its total take in the upfront in morning sales, perhaps because NBC has more hours to sell than anyone else, having expanded “Today” first to a 9 a.m. hour and then a 10 a.m. hour. But for years, “Today” has also enjoyed a huge edge in sales because advertisers paid a premium to get their commercials in the program.
Executives from ABC have speculated that NBC would surely lose that significant premium this season because the network lost its all-time winning streak. Mr. Capus said, “We are still getting the premium,” though he did not quantify it. But he stressed that NBC is still winning every week in the category where all the sales are made, as it has for 894 consecutive weeks.
Mr. Capus acknowledged being exasperated by the attention to the challenge to “Today” from ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He said “Today” has rebounded since May and has not lost a week in viewers to “GMA.” (Last week the margin was only 35,000 viewers.) But the impending departure of Ms. Curry has underscored the image of a show under siege.
Mr. Capus is the longest-serving of the network news presidents, having been in charge since 2005. With the recent ratings troubles, his future in the job had become source of speculation in the news business. Mr. Wheatley pointed out that such speculation is common “any time there is significant slippage” in the ratings for a network.
But, though he declined to comment on it, Mr. Capus won a significant endorsement this week: he signed a new long-term deal to continue as the top executive in the news division.