A little competition can't hurt news races

Last year, a lot of ink was spilled talking about the sea change going on in the networks' morning and evening news shows.

Katie Couric left NBC's Today for CBS Evening News, replaced by Meredith Vieira. Charles Gibson left ABC's Good Morning America to work evenings, with changes to GMA in his wake. Only NBC Nightly News remained without turmoil in 2006.

That changed last week, when the newscast's executive producer, John Reiss, was replaced. But it's one of several things that have happened in the evening news race during the past few months, including Couric's consistent, distant third-place finish and the resurgence of Gibson's World News on ABC, particularly during the past month.

Things have yet to settle.

"It's a tumultuous time," says Rome Hartman, executive producer of the CBS Evening News.

The basics remain the same. NBC is ahead season-to-date in viewership and the adults 25-54 demographic. But that leadership position--which for NBC stretches back 10 years to the days of Tom Brokaw--seems to be slipping for several reasons. Even Today, which has seen a relatively successful transition from Couric to Vieira, is down in viewership, though it's still ahead of GMA.

"The shakeup, it's still being shaked up," says Steve Friedman, a Today vet who runs morning programming at CBS. Friedman believes that Couric's departure from NBC and Gibson's move from mornings to evenings still are rippling across the landscape.

Couric's departure liberated her NBC audience to look elsewhere in the mornings, Friedman says. Gibson has drawn viewers away from NBC and to ABC's World News, though it isn't clear that it has done much to help GMA.

World News executive producer Jon Banner isn't sure about that theory--even though, if true, his newscast is a primary beneficiary.

"It's very difficult to determine," Banner says. "There are a lot of moving parts to how people respond."

Still, ABC seems to have the momentum, growing the broadcast as well as winning the February sweep. NBC News is hanging on to dominance in the ratings even as the network itself remains stuck in fourth place in prime time. Couric's broadcast has yet to find its footing in the ratings despite a sky-high start in September. Hartman says they knew it would be a tough slog.

Banner is looking at the world from a better position, but he's realistic.

"After all that has happened to us here, this victory does mean a lot," Banner says. "But at the same time, we know we've been No. 2 for a long time, and we've got a lot of hard work to do."

Banner has said all along that he wants to see all three newscasts competitive, something he repeated last week even amid the turmoil at his rivals.

"What I would hope would happen would be three programs fighting for first, because we are better when challenged by our competitors," Banner says. But he's happy to see an upward turn at ABC.

"That's what matters to us, growing our broadcast," he says. "[Beyond that], we'll let the chips fall where they may."

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