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NBC News Dominant Despite Network Woes

First Posted: 04/03/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 04:20 PM ET

Steve Capus Brian Williams
NBC News President Steve Capus and "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams at Winter TCA Tour, January 10, 2010 in Pasadena, CA.

The name NBC may be synonymous with turmoil right now, with the network's well-documented problems in primetime and its recent late-night drama involving Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. But at least one of the network's divisions — NBC News — has a remarkably different story to tell.

NBC News is coming off one of its most successful years ever and is poised to expand on that success in 2010. The network is home to the #1 program in the morning ("Today"), the evening ("Nightly News"), and on Sundays ("Meet the Press), and as ABC has initiated anchor changes across all three of those timeslots, NBC's programs haven't lost steam.

NBC News President Steve Capus recently shared this message with ad sales and network affiliates in a sort of "news upfront," where he keyed in on the network's ratings and its deep talent pool to pitch NBC as the network best suited for continued success in the future.

2009 Ratings
"Nightly News with Brian Williams"
In the November sweeps, for instance, "Nightly News with Brian Williams" averaged 9.167 million total viewers, an 11% advantage over "World News" (its best since 2005). In the A25-54 demo, "Nightly' saw its best advantage over "World News" since 2002, averaging 2.770 A25-54 viewers for a 17% advantage. "Nightly" also had its best share ever during the November sweeps, with 38.8% of the network news audience choosing Williams' broadcast, and was the only one of the three network newscasts to grow year-over-year.

Of course, Diane Sawyer replaced Charlie Gibson as "World News" anchor in December; but since then, "Nightly" has only increased its lead, growing to a regular audience of over 10 million viewers and beating "World News" by 16% in total viewers and 26% in the A25-54 demo over the first five weeks of Sawyer's tenure.

"Today"
In the morning, the "Today" show brand is as strong as ever, with ratings to match. The show is #1 across all key demos and was the only morning network news show to grow year-over-year (ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS' "Early Show" were down or flat in all demographics). "Today" — which in 2008-2009 topped "GMA" by 25% in total viewers, 33% in Women 18-49, and 26% in Women 25-54 — has increased its lead over "GMA" to over 1.3 million viewers from 7-9 AM.

Even after 9AM, the "Today" show continues to grow; from 9-10AM, the show is up 8% in total viewers and 7% in W25-54, now beating ABC's "Live! with Regis and Kelly" for the first time (by 5%). And the 10AM hour featuring Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb has benefitted from what Capus calls "the 'SNL' effect," growing 9% in total viewers and 13% among W25-54 ("SNL" regularly parodies the broadcast).

"Meet the Press with David Gregory"
Sunday mornings are perhaps where NBC was most vulnerable, with Tim Russert's sudden death in June 2008 casting the dominance of the "Meet the Press" franchise in serious doubt. But Capus describes David Gregory's performance in 2009 as a stabilizing one; with few but notable exceptions, "Meet the Press" regularly topped ABC's "This Week" (along with CBS' "Face the Nation" and "FOX News Sunday") for the Sunday morning crown. Gregory now has a year under his belt and a question mark at his chief competitor, where ABC has yet to announce a replacement for George Stephanopoulos on "This Week." In 2010, Capus has told him, "Buddy, you gotta run."

2010
In an interview in his Rockefeller Center office, Capus said that while he is pleased with his show's ratings, he worries constantly about maintaining the top spot.

"Roger Ailes' sense of healthy paranoia manifests itself here," he said. "Staying number one enables everything that we do."

To stay number one, Capus — who says all of his network's major talent are locked up in long-term deals — will rely on his network's star power, which he calls "a Mount Rushmore of television news" as well as its deep bench of younger talent. He says his boss, embattled NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker, is very supportive in this regard.

"He is not a casual observer of what goes on here," Capus said of Zucker, who got his start in NBC's News division. "We talk all the time, and he is the first to say, 'Let's rip up this talent contract and renew it.' He is absolutely our biggest advocate."

Capus also pointed to the growth of his cable arm, MSNBC — which offers a dual revenue stream of subscriber fees and advertiser revenue — as a key component of his 2010 strategy.

But he says he is not worried about the perception that MSNBC's liberal slant could taint his objective NBC News brand, citing figures that show only 17% of the "Nightly News" audience self-identifies as either "somewhat liberal" or "very liberal," compared to 30% "middle of the road" and 37% "somewhat conservative" or "very conservative." Like the other evening newscast audiences, most "Nightly" viewers are "middle of the road," skewing more conservative than liberal.

Looking beyond 2010, Capus — who also hopes to help NBC's affiliate stations grow their local newscasts — said "it will be very interesting to see what happens when Oprah goes off the air." Oprah's lead-in puts ABC affiliate stations in a strong position nationally as, in many markets, her show is immediately followed by the local news.

But for now, Capus is most pleased that his programs' strong ratings have put him in a position — unlike his competitors — where he doesn't have to consider large-scale layoffs. CBS News, for instance, plans layoffs this week.

"I don't see the need for massive cuts," he said. "That wouldn't be the case if the ratings weren't where they are."

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