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CBS News hits a ratings low mark

July 7, 2003
Associated Press

"CBS Evening News" marked a low point in a storied history last week -- its smallest average audience in at least 10 years, perhaps ever.

The evening newscast with Dan Rather, for several years third in the ratings behind NBC and ABC, has lately been losing even more ground to its rivals.

It was watched last week by an average of 6.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. NBC's "Nightly News" had 8.9 million viewers and ABC's "World News Tonight" had 8.2 million.

The weeks around July 4 are generally the least-watched TV weeks of the year.

Discounting holidays and weeks when the news was pre-empted, researchers going back to 1993 could not find a worse week for the "CBS Evening News." Ratings for these flagship newscasts have been steadily eroding, so you would probably have to go back to the early days of television to find a lesser-watched week.

"Clearly, we want to reverse that trend," CBS News President Andrew Heyward said Tuesday. "I don't think it's something to be overly concerned about ... It's an issue but not something I want to overreact to. I think the program itself journalistically is as good as it has ever been."

Rather, 71, has anchored the CBS evening newscast since taking over for Walter Cronkite in March 1981. Cronkite was dominant for years, and Rather spent much of the 1980s atop the ratings, before being passed, first by ABC's Peter Jennings and then NBC's Tom Brokaw.

His job is not in any danger, according to his boss, who praised Rather as "full of energy and enthusiasm for the program."

"He's one of the best broadcast journalists ever," Heyward said. "I don't think he's the issue."

For the first six months of this year, CBS' average evening news audience has dropped 5 percent, from 8.5 million to 8.1 million, compared to the first six months of 2002. This comes despite the war in Iraq, which helped cable news ratings shoot up during the same period.

NBC's "Nightly News" went up 4 percent, from 10.2 million to 10.6 million, from the first half of last year to this year. ABC's "World News Tonight" rose slightly, from 9.76 million to 9.79 million.

"I think we've got a consistency that America recognizes," said Steve Capus, executive producer of NBC's "Nightly News."

The serious news of the Bush administration -- the terrorist attacks, subsequent wars and economic troubles -- have demanded a toughness from the evening newscasts and NBC has responded, he said.

ABC also pronounced itself pleased with its ratings.

Some analysts suggested an emphasis on hard news by NBC and ABC has outflanked CBS, which always considered hard news a point of pride.

Heyward said not every ratings fluctuation can be explained by looking at the content. He said he'll look for tactical improvements, such as promoting the show more aggressively in certain markets, to boost viewership.

The ratings for last week were particularly heartening for NBC, since Brian Williams subbed for Brokaw as anchor against Jennings and Rather. (Linda Vargas sat in for Jennings on Friday.)

That will be the evening match-up starting in December 2004, when Brokaw retires from "Nightly News." His competitors have looked forward to that as a time to make ratings inroads, but the lengthening of NBC's lead makes that job tougher.

A slow week in prime-time was dominated by producers Jerry Bruckheimer (with the "CSI" shows and "Without a Trace") and Dick Wolf (with his "Law & Order" shows). The two creators were responsible for seven of the top eight most-watched shows last week.

NBC won the week, averaging 7.8 million viewers (5.5 rating, 10 share). CBS had 7.7 million (5.4, 10), Fox had 5.8 million (3.8, 7), ABC had 5.6 million (3.9, 7), UPN had 2.9 million (1.9, 4), the WB had 2.3 million (1.7, 3) and Pax TV had 860,000 (0.6, 1).

A ratings point represents 1,067,000 households, or 1 percent of the nation's estimated 106.7 million TV homes. The share is the percentage of in-use televisions tuned to a given show.