ABC Wins Nightly News With Fast-Moving Show, Young Anchor

Updated on
  • David Muir’s updated take is a surprise hit with old viewers
  • Together broadcasters’ newscasts far outdraw cable TV’s stars

ABC’s evening news program, “World News Tonight,” took the lead in total viewers from NBC’s “Nightly News” for the first time in 21 years with a fast-paced show that’s proved surprisingly popular with older audiences.

Hosted by David Muir, “World News Tonight” drew an average 8.3 million viewers a night in the past 12 months, according to Nielsen data from the network, compared with 8.2 million for second place NBC. NBC’s “Nightly News” with Lester Holt is still tops in the 25-to-54-year-old group favored by advertisers, though its lead shrank. The “CBS Evening News,” which reassigned anchor Scott Pelley earlier this year, was third with 6.58 million viewers.

While the big three evening newscasts have lost more than a third of their viewers over the past 25 years, their combined daily audience of 23 million still dwarfs cable. In recent years, their ratings have steadied, even as cable news increased its younger viewers. And they remain a lucrative source of advertising revenue for ABC’s parent Walt Disney Co., NBC owner Comcast Corp. and CBS Corp.

“To the extent the network news can distinguish itself from perceived biases of cable news operators, it will always have a niche to exploit,” said Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has written about TV news.

David Muir

Photographer: Ida Mae Astute/ABC via Getty Images

Muir, 43, took over the anchor desk three years ago from Diane Sawyer, a longtime mentor. On the air, he favors skinny ties, sits behind a futuristic glass desk and sends messages on Twitter during commercial breaks. Holt is 58. CBS’s interim anchor, Anthony Mason, who is filling the spot following the June reassignment of Pelley, is 61.

Shorter Segments

When Muir took over, “World News Tonight” developed a distinctive style, with shorter segments, fewer outside experts and an emphasis on dynamic videos, such as those captured on a cellphone or a dashboard camera, according to Andrew Tyndall, who publishes a blog that follows the evening news. “World News Tonight” teases upcoming segments during commercials with subtitles such as “Next: Lightning Strikes Family.”

Muir has traveled overseas 16 times since taking over, including to Somaliland to cover famine there and to Jordan to investigate the vetting process of refugees coming to the U.S. Other highlights include a special on America’s heroin epidemic and the first interview with President Donald Trump after he took office.

“What they managed to do is come up with an evening newscast that is very modern and very in tune with this moment,” ABC News President James Goldston said in an interview. “People have been talking for a generation about the demise of the evening newscast. I actually think what you see in ‘World News Tonight’ is an extremely modern aggregator of the day’s news.”

The average age of “World News Tonight” viewers, at 64.5 years, edged past “Nightly News” at 64.1 years in 2016, according to Nielsen. Muir, whose program also leads in older women, co-hosts the ABC News magazine show “20/20” and appears regularly as a guest on the network’s morning chat show “The View.”

Ads seen during a recent airing of “World News Tonight” leaned heavily on pharmaceuticals and pain relievers. The pet food advertised, Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind Adult 7+, is designed to enhance mental sharpness in senior dogs. Overall ad sales for the three evening newscasts rose 8.1 percent to $615 million last year, according to data from Kantar Media.

Digital Direction

Like other media outlets, ABC News has sought to find its footing in the digital age. A series of daily news updates Muir recorded for Facebook was halted. Goldston said overall “World News Tonight” video views on social media rose 54 percent last year.

“World News Tonight” spent more time than its rivals covering Donald Trump’s presidential campaign last year, some 434 minutes compared with 393 minutes for NBC and 317 minutes at CBS, according to Tyndall. Last place CBS led in coverage of the Zika virus and the Syrian civil war.

“‘Nightly News’ has had a banner season by the most important measures, such as our consistent and incredibly strong lead in the key demo, and Lester’s leadership on the biggest stories of the last year, including his interview with President Trump, which remains the most consequential of this presidency,” Sam Singal, executive producer, said in a statement. CBS declined to comment.

News programs are benefiting from a renewed interest in politics, according to Brian Hughes, a senior vice president of audience intelligence at Magna, an ad agency in New York. Viewers are also spending more time watching the programs when they do tune in, he said.

“People want to stay connected on the latest news,” Hughes said. “Even if it’s craziness.”

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