NEW YORK — Despite the slow, seemingly bottomless decline of NBC's prime-time lineup over the past decade, the network's other programming remained unaffected. Now there are signs that that is changing.
NBC's "Today" show, "Tonight" show, "Nightly News" and "Meet the Press" have long led their time slots on broadcast television. Each is seeing rivals chip away at that supremacy and although different factors are at play, there are worries that prime-time problems also play a role.
"Performing this poorly in prime time year after year does have an impact on other (parts of the day)," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for Horizon Media.
NBC is averaging 6.9 million viewers in prime time this season, fourth behind CBS, Fox and ABC – nearly 2 million behind third-place ABC, the Nielsen Co. said. That's down 32 percent from NBC's average five years ago and a whopping 55 percent off the 15.4 million people who watched NBC on a typical evening during the must-see TV era in 1996-97.
To some degree, there is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind factor at play. If you're not watching an NBC prime-time show, that means fewer opportunities to see a promo for the Jay Leno line-up that night, or who might talk to Matt Lauer the next morning. And because you haven't seen the ads for upcoming shows, you're less likely to tune in.
The "Today" show is still the industry leader, but its morning competition with ABC's "Good Morning America" is significantly tighter than it was last year.
Through six weeks of this season, "Today" has averaged 5.23 million viewers, Nielsen said. That's actually up slightly from last season, an achievement since it indicates that the replacement of Meredith Vieira with Ann Curry as co-host was pulled off without a hiccup.
Yet "Good Morning America," with 4.78 million viewers, has gained more than a half million viewers this season, closing the gap with "Today," going from 22 percent to 9 percent. "Today" has kept its loyal fans but new people are going to ABC. "GMA" sees the numbers as evidence that the addition of Josh Elliott and Lara Spencer to the team of Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos has clicked.
"You're going to get all the news and information you need and have a royally grand time," said James Goldston, "Good Morning America" executive producer.
The trend raises the possibility that ABC can seriously threaten NBC's vaunted winning streak, which would be huge psychologically and financially for NBC. "Today" hasn't lost a single week in the ratings since December 1995, a stretch of 828 weeks.
The last time ABC pulled close – in one week of May 2005 "Today" won by only 43,000 viewers – it resulted in a management turnover that put current "Today" executive producer Jim Bell in his job and then NBC pulled away again. "Today" is NBC's most profitable program, and doesn't want to show any sense of vulnerability. NBC notes that last season "Today" had its biggest advantage over ABC in seven years in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic on which it bases ad sales.
A positive impact of prime time for ABC: "Good Morning America" does particularly well on mornings that it features interviews with ousted "Dancing With the Stars" contenders.
Executives at NBC News don't want to point fingers at colleagues in charge of the prime-time lineup, where viewership is down 11 percent just from last season. Still, the situation forces them to look for different ways to get the word out about their material with fewer viewers available to see the evening promotions.
That lack of visibility may have hurt Brian Williams' new "Rock Center" newsmagazine, which premiered last week before 4.1 million viewers, or less than a third of what "60 Minutes" gets for a typical telecast.
"Everybody is pulling for prime time to improve," said David Corvo, senior executive producer at NBC News. "These are men and women that we know and they put an awful lot of work into it."
Williams' "Nightly News" remains the clear ratings leader in the evening news category. Although ABC's "World News" pulled closer earlier this fall, NBC has stretched out its lead in recent weeks. While still far behind in third place, the "CBS Evening News" has become more competitive since Scott Pelley took over as anchor.
NBC's "Meet the Press" was long the dominant player in the Sunday morning political chat shows, but those days have changed. Much of that was due to the death of longtime host Tim Russert in June 2008.
The real growth on Sunday morning is on CBS, where "Face the Nation" with Bob Schieffer has significantly improved its standing against "Meet the Press" and new anchor David Gregory and Christiane Amanpour of ABC's "This Week."
So far this season "Meet the Press" holds a narrow lead among all viewers, but there's been a big turnaround among 25-to-54-year-olds. Schieffer is now ahead in that category, while Gregory's broadcast has dropped 17 percent over the past year, according to Nielsen.
Jay Leno was the king of late-night TV for more than a decade, but that's not the case anymore. Leno has never really recovered from the failed experiment to put him in prime time.
ABC's "Nightline" leads the late-night ratings now, and this season has increased its small advantage over Leno's "Tonight" show and CBS's "Late Show" with David Letterman. The "Tonight" show is essentially flat, while Letterman is losing viewers.
Despite this trend, Letterman has taken a slight lead over Leno among the demographically prized 18-to-49-year-old viewers. That means Leno's audience, with a median age of 57, is getting older and less valuable in the eyes of the TV industry.
For NBC, these non-prime-time programs have essentially defied television gravity by staying strong as the rest of the network crumbled around them. New corporate owner Comcast Corp. seems to realize that prime time is where most of NBC's energy should be centered. Reports are that the network's entertainment division is spending aggressively during development season to become more competitive.
"Perhaps the best you can say is that there's upside if they can fix what is obviously broken," said Craig Moffett, a senior analyst for the Wall Street firm Sanford C. Bernstein.