NEW YORK — For the last decade, NBC News has dominated broadcast news, besting the competition with juggernaut programs like "Today" and "NBC Nightly News." Even when the network's prime-time fortunes sank in recent years, the news programs remained outposts of ratings strength.
But now there are signs that the long-golden news division is losing some of its luster.
This season has seen a marked drop in viewership of the network's flagship evening newscast, triggering unease inside a newsroom unaccustomed to ratings woes.
"NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams" is down an average of 570,000 viewers compared with last season, a falloff of 6%, according to Nielsen Media Research. The drop has allowed ABC's "World News With Charles Gibson" -- which has gained almost 60,000 viewers this season -- to substantially narrow the gap between the two programs.
"Today," which lost Katie Couric to CBS this season, has maintained a strong lead over the competition. But the program has suffered its own audience erosion, especially in the key 25- to 54-year-old demographic, which has dwindled by 250,000 viewers so far, a drop of 8%.
Network sources say the shrinking audiences have alarmed news executives and deepened a sense of anxiety among a staff already nervous about new cuts looming as part of NBC Universal's corporate restructuring initiative, dubbed NBCU 2.0. The mood turned especially gloomy last week when "World News" bested NBC in the February sweeps, ABC's first such win in 11 years.
"It's always a very unhappy moment when things are not going as well as they were," said former NBC News President Richard Wald, now a journalism professor at Columbia University who consults for ABC News. "I think they are in that place every dominant news organization finds itself in: You can't go up, you can only go down. This is just the beginning of a struggle, but it is a struggle."
Steve Capus, president of the news division, said he is untroubled by the ratings, and he rejected the notion that the organization has hit a rough patch.
"NBC News is far and away America's leading news division, and that is as true today as it was yesterday," he said. "There is always going to be an ebb and flow in the ratings here and there. The 'Today' show continues to be incredibly dominant. If I were to look at a scoreboard, 'Nightly News' is winning the game."
Capus added that the news division is expanding in key areas such as MSNBC.com, which attracts more traffic than the websites of ABC and CBS combined. This week, Williams is in Iraq to cover the ongoing violence and troop escalation.
It would be difficult for ABC to knock the NBC broadcasts off their perches altogether this season. ("Today" leads "Good Morning America" by 820,000 viewers on average, while "Nightly News" has a margin of 460,000 viewers over "World News.") But the ratings drop-off is an unwelcome trend, particularly on the heels of Jeff Zucker's recent appointment as chief executive of NBC Universal. Zucker got his start in the news division as executive producer of "Today."
"They don't want to disappoint him or put a blot on his ascendancy," Wald said.
Together, the morning and evening newscasts make up NBC News' most important assets. "Today" -- which is expanding to a fourth hour this fall -- brings in the bulk of the revenue. "Nightly News" is the network's signature broadcast, and its top ranking carries prestige.
The audience decline in the evening has particularly worried NBC executives. "They're scared," said one editorial staffer familiar with internal discussions. "This is enough to constitute an overall trend, and you can't deny it."
The falloff in the ratings has contributed to an unusual period of upheaval at "Nightly News," whose executive producer, John Reiss, left his post Friday, largely because he and Williams had differing working styles, sources said. Officials are expected to name a new producer this week.
Evening news ratings have historically moved in long, slow cycles. "Nightly News," dominant since the mid-1990s, remained No. 1 when Williams replaced Tom Brokaw in December 2004 in what was widely viewed as a successful handoff. But for most of his tenure, the NBC anchor had been competing against two networks mired in upheaval: CBS transitioned from Dan Rather to Bob Schieffer and then Couric, while ABC appointed Gibson to the anchor desk last May after Peter Jennings died of lung cancer and Bob Woodruff was almost killed in Iraq.
Now that all three newscasts have permanent anchors, the competitive landscape may be shifting. One factor, suggested industry veterans, could be Gibson himself. The 63-year-old newsman has a calm presence that appears to be playing well with the evening news audience.