Will the Brian Williams Debacle Cause Advertisers to Flee 'Nightly News?'

Currently Marketers Are Staying Put

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UPDATE: NBC said on Tuesday, Feb. 10, that it is suspending Brian Williams for six months without pay as it continues to investigate false statements Mr. Williams made about covering the Iraq War in 2003.

"This has been a painful period for all concerned and we appreciate your patience while we gathered the available facts. By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News," Steve Burke, CEO, NBC Universal, said in a statement. "His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate. Brian's life's work is delivering the news. I know Brian loves his country, NBC News and his colleagues. He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone's trust."

When it comes to evening newscasts, it's all about the anchor. So Brian Williams' announcement that he is taking a leave of absence from "NBC Nightly News" raises questions about the long-term value of the newscast for advertisers.

Currently, it doesn't appear marketers are fleeing from "Nightly News," but that could change if there's a meaningful shift in ratings.

In general, news programs aren't a huge hit with a broad range of marketers. Like other nightly news programs, NBC's biggest advertisers are pharmaceutical companies, including the makers of Cialis, Centrum, Humira and Chantix.

"Advertisers have been walking away from news. If the target is under 49, marketers aren't buying traditional news. While it may tarnishe his reputation (and that is still to be determined), it doesn't necessarily impact how advertisers are buying news," said Jason Kanefsky, exec VP-strategic investments, Havas Media.

NBC declined to comment on the status of advertisers.

Mr. Williams' announced over the weekend that he will not appear on the evening newscast following his admission that he lied about being on a helicopter in Iraq that was struck by a grenade. Mr. Williams, who also serves as managing editor of "Nightly News," is being replaced by Lester Holt, who has anchored weekend editions of "Nightly News" and "Today," for an undisclosed amount of time.

"Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us," Mr. Williams said in a statement over the weekend. Mr. Williams has anchored "Nightly News" since 2004 and signed a new contract last year.

It remains to be seen how ratings will be impacted while Mr. Williams is on leave and then once he returns, but according to media executives, much rests on the popular anchor, who is watched by about 10 million people on any given night.

Since the content of evening newscasts doesn't vary greatly from one network to another, the anchor plays a significant role in getting people to tune in, according to one media buyer.

"People who watch the evening news get comfortable with one personality," the buyer said. "There's a fair amount of loyalty to newscasts on a household basis. People don't typically switch around. So a change in the anchor could hurt NBC."

Billie Gold, VP -- research and programming, Carat, expects the fiasco to have some impact on "Nightly News" ratings, but doesn't foresee a significant drop off.

"Nightly News" was already slipping in ratings prior to the situation. While it still reigns as the top evening newscast overall, ABC's "World News Tonight" has been slowly closing the gap since David Muir took over for Diane Sawyer in 2014, Ms. Gold said.

And on Friday, "World News Tonight" anchored by David Muir beat "Nightly News," averaging 8.5 million viewers, compared to just under 8 million for NBC.

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