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The State of the Network News Business : Despite Declining Ratings, Increasing Competition, Counter-Programming and Shifting Time Slots, the Evening Newscasts Are Far From Extinct

'88 ARTS OUTLOOK: First in a series exploring the issues that will be making news in the arts in the New Year.

December 28, 1987|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The good news for network evening newscasts is that few in broadcasting think they'll eventually go the way of the pterodactyl. And the ramifications for them of the new people-meter ratings system are "nil," as one research expert puts it.

"The future of network (evening) news is alive and well," sums up NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw.

But how well is open to debate when the yardstick is the ratings for the "CBS Evening News," ABC's "World News Tonight" and the "NBC Nightly News."

Their days of dominance have clearly waned, primarily because of the new era of competition from cable TV (including Cable News Network), independent stations, the videocassette recorder and even the more than 600 affiliated stations of CBS, NBC and ABC.

The network newscasts hit their peak in the 1981-82 season, when they had a combined 39.3 rating, which means they were seen in more than 32 million homes. Then began a decline that has continued despite a comeback in the 1985-86 season.

Last season, the broadcast networks' evening newscasts combined to attract, on the average, about 30.2 million homes. The most recent season-to-date ratings for the current season--as of Dec. 20--show a three-network average of just over 29 million homes.

It may be whistling in the dark, but some network news executives, notably CBS News President Howard Stringer, think there may be a bottoming-out of this decline, possibly by the end of this season in April.

The reasons for the ratings drop "are fairly clear," says Stringer, whose "CBS Evening News" itself suffered a decline to third place this summer but now is in first place again in season-to-date averages.

All three network newscasts, he notes, face the same competitive problems as the prime-time network entertainment shows--rival syndicated shows and reruns airing both on independent stations and network affiliates.

"In the '70s, you didn't counter-program (network) news with sitcoms and game shows," he says. And, he adds, it's "less common" now that network newscasts directly compete against each other in many cities.

"They are counter-programmed by something else. So as the competition gets fiercer out there, not only is the competition directly against the evening news stronger, the affiliates move the evening news into less dominant positions," Stringer says.

"As the (network) evening news gets moved from 7 p.m. to 6:30 to 6 and to 5:30 p.m., in some instances, the viewing levels go down. So it's really kind of a victim of the whole ratings wars at all levels of television."

But all this shuffling and counter-programming must eventually face diminishing returns, and "I think when that happens, there'll be some bottoming-out" of the ratings drop for network newscasts, Stringer suggests.

Stringer and CBS News anchorman Dan Rather--who has declined interviews since the new season began--had an uneasy summer this year when the once-dominant "CBS Evening News" slipped into third place.

That occurred during a break-in period of the A. C. Nielsen Co. people-meter ratings system, when the company's old system of meters and household diaries still was in use as the primary form of audience measurement.

During that time, CBS News officials, while privately nervous, steadfastly insisted publicly that the early people-meter returns showed Rather ahead and that he would be a contender come the new season.

They were proved right when people meters fully succeeded the old system of national audience estimates in mid-September.

According to the Nielsens, Rather's program has been No. 1 in ratings since the new season began on Sept. 21, winning for 13 consecutive weeks. The "NBC Nightly News," which led the pack in the summer, has gone the other way. Although it edged out ABC's "World News Tonight" in the week ending Dec. 20 to win second place by a tenth of a ratings point, it nonetheless is third--also by a tenth of a ratings point--in season-to-date averages.

It's too early to say what this portends, says NBC research chief Bill Rubens, who in an October interview contended that the new system has what he considers statistical "anomalies."

He admitted that "we don't understand" the factors contributing to the ratings drop of "Nightly News" and says the Nielsen data needs more study before any conclusions can be drawn.

But he said the ramifications of the new system for network newscasts "are nil," despite reports and speculation that people meters will lead to a further drop in ratings for the three newscasts.

All three network news divisions, facing the new competition, are mulling how their evening newscasts should look and what they should do in the future. No clear picture has emerged yet.

"I don't think they are an endangered species," says one veteran network news executive who requested anonymity. However, he says, satellite technology has markedly changed the way things work.

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