ABC rally makes evening news race competitive

By DAVID BAUDER

AP Television Writer

NEW YORK — More than one competition has tightened with the approach of Election Day.

Anchors David Muir and Lester Holt are in the midst of a spirited competition for first place in television’s evening news ratings. After several years in second, ABC’s “World News Tonight” with Muir has lately pulled even with NBC’s “Nightly News” and some weeks a relative handful of viewers separate the shows.

Morning may be where the money is for broadcast news divisions, but the evening newscasts have long been an important measure of strength. Even while some regard them as relics of a different media age, the ABC, NBC and CBS evening newscasts are durable institutions that collectively reach around 24 million viewers each weeknight.

Since the season began in late September, the ABC telecast has averaged 8.25 million viewers a night to NBC’s 8.12 million, the Nielsen company said. That essentially reverses the numbers from a year ago. NBC won during most weeks this calendar year until September, when the winds have favored Muir.

NBC counters that its lead among viewers aged 25-to-54, the demographic measurement used most often to sell news advertising, has essentially doubled since last fall. In other words, NBC says Muir’s rally is built upon older, less valuable viewers.

ABC says its rise has been slow and steady since Muir replaced Diane Sawyer as chief anchor in September 2014.

“It’s how David performs, how the show looks and what we put on the air,” said Almin Karamehmedovic, executive producer of the ABC telecast. “Viewers have responded, and we’re truly grateful for the people who have tuned in every night.”

Muir has traveled to Guantanamo Bay and near the Syrian border during the last few months for stories and viewers seem to appreciate that he’s still reporting, Karamehmedovic said.

Holt had managed to maintain NBC’s viewership for more than a year following his tumultuous ascension to the anchor’s role, replacing Brian Williams after Williams was found to have lied about his role covering some news stories.

“We’re just beginning a new season,” said Sam Singal, executive producer of “Nightly News.” ”We need to look at it on a much broader scale.”

Oddly, NBC’s viewership has declined relative to last year during a presidential election campaign that has rewarded cable news outlets with huge audiences as they cover politics wall-to-wall. NBC’s sister network, MSNBC, recorded its most-watched month in the network’s 20-year history during October.

There’s some thought that the cable news outlets have captured the political junkies while more casual viewers were growing sick of the campaign.

“When there’s a really big news story people are tuning in, but there’s so much churn every day that it’s hard to keep that excitement,” Singal said.

Muir’s recent rise also coincided with Holt’s most attention-grabbing assignment, as the moderator for the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Holt generally drew positive reviews, although not as strong as Anderson Cooper, Martha Raddatz and Chris Wallace received in subsequent debates.

Prior to the debate, Holt won 29 individual weeks in the ratings to ABC’s 10, Nielsen said. ABC won four of the first five weeks after the debate.

“I look at it more as a missed opportunity to gain stature,” said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who monitors the content of evening newscasts.

Singal said that “we thought it was a great evening for him and for us.”

The ratings bring added intrigue to election night coverage. Presidential election nights are like the Super Bowl for news divisions, and winning the night in the ratings is a major bragging point. Election night viewership in the past has roughly corresponded with evening news ratings, since the evening news anchor usually leads the coverage.

That’s not the case this year, though. George Stephanopoulos is the top anchor for ABC’s election night coverage, with Muir in a supporting role.