Lester Holt vs. Brian Williams Ratings: Why Everyone's Looking at Them Wrong

Especially in Broadcast Evening News, a Slip One Week Is Nothing

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Lester Holt's ratings depend in part on the news, as they did for Brian Williams. Advertisers depend on the broadcast either way.
Lester Holt's ratings depend in part on the news, as they did for Brian Williams. Advertisers depend on the broadcast either way.

In the rush to spell the doom of NBC's 45-year-old evening news flagship, media reporters and civilian rubberneckers last week engaged in a very public and foolhardy exercise in confirmation bias.

In case you've been languishing in a Boston-area snow cave for a couple of weeks, "NBC Nightly News" on Feb. 10 suspended its chief anchor and managing editor, Brian Williams, for six months without pay. The 55-year-old anchor's various misrepresentations and misrememberings jeopardized the credibility of the news agency and the nation's No.1 evening newscast, and so it was decided that he had to go.

NBC News veteran Lester Holt subbed in on Feb. 9, two days after Mr. Williams removed himself from the newscast for what the anchor had hoped would be merely "the next several days." That's when those reporting on the business of broadcast news began to stumble all over themselves.

Here's the hard data, as generated by Nielsen. Over the course of Mr. Williams' final week behind the "NBC Nightly News" desk (Feb. 2-6), the show averaged 10.2 million total viewers and a 2.1 rating among adults 25 to 54. Each ratings point represents 1% of TV households, and that 2.1 figure translates to a little more than 2.5 million people in the core news demographic.

In Lester Holt's first week, "NBC Nightly News" averaged 9.43 million viewers and a 1.9 in the news demo, or 2.29 million adults 25 to 54. Overall deliveries fell 8% from one week to the next, while the targeted audience was down 9%. None of this is exactly mind-blowing; in fact, Mr. Holt's first week of ratings effectively tied Mr. Williams' performance during the week of Jan. 19-23. Moreover, Mr. Holt's opening week easily out-rated Mr. Williams' numbers during the week of Dec. 15-19. Track the evening news deliveries far back enough and it becomes readily apparent that the visibility of the nightly broadcast is almost wholly dependent on the news cycle itself.

It's also worth noting that NBC's biggest rival, ABC's "World News Tonight," also dropped in Mr. Holt's first week, dipping 5% in both total viewers and the demo (1.9 from a 2.0).

Mr. Williams' final week offered the usual mix of hard news (stories on the latest ISIS atrocity and the deadly Metro North train collision 20 miles north of New York) and some of the more uncategorizable hallmarks of the format (a virtual deathwatch for Whitney Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown; a breezy lark about Pope Francis' Google Hangout; and Mr. Williams' own on-air mea culpa). Mr. Holt's opening week was characterized by a story on the death of Kayla Mueller, an American hostage of ISIS; the murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina; and no fewer than four reports about the extreme cold in the Northeast.

None of those stories was ever going to deliver Election Night-type ratings, but on balance, the content of Mr. Holt's opening week was perhaps just a little softer. (There is only so much one can report on snow accumulation before self-parody creeps in.) But it is also true that the number of people watching TV in Mr. Williams' final week, Feb. 2-6, was slightly higher than the following week, which only further complicates any sort of apples-to-hand-grenades comparison.

There is also the matter of sample size and ratings guarantees to advertisers. Five nights isn't near enough time to assess the long-term prospects of a somewhat revamped show, and even if Mr. Holt's ratings had immediately nosedived, the very nature of the endemic news advertiser all but negates the likelihood of a sudden exodus from the broadcast. Simply put, the marketer categories in play are extremely limited: Pharma accounts for the vast majority of ads in newscasts, where they seek a greying population beset with COPD, high blood pressure and elevated levels of triglycerides in their blood.

If nothing else, a defection from one of the three nightly network newscasts would only serve to make it more difficult for marketers to reach this older audience--there simply are not enough ratings points to go around. As for replacement inventory, your media plan probably already includes time on older-skewing scripted series like "Blue Bloods" and "Dancing With the Stars." In fact, a number of CBS and ABC shows should be in your plan, given the median age of each network's audience: 59 years and 55 years, respectively. If you're slinging heart pills and insurance, you need broadcast news.

Again, NBC is hitting its ratings guarantees and the "Nightly News" clients aren't exactly abandoning ship. No one is making any rash decisions based on a slight declivity in a single week of Nielsen numbers; TV just doesn't work like that.

A small decline in 25-54 deliveries could even work in NBC's favor during the 2015-16 upfront bazaar. If available inventory tightens a little and demand doesn't fall, the network will be able to secure concomitant ad-rate increases. That's the logic that underpins the market, and a few distortions of the truth and a new skipper at the helm isn't going to change that. It takes a long time to turn around a battleship, and it takes even longer to sink one of the iron-clad war horses.

Whatever happens to Mr. Williams, and the chattering heads at rival media properties insist that he's never coming back to NBC (take that how you will), the full story on "Nightly News" has yet to be written. It's too early for any of that, and any prognostication based on such an insignificant sample size is not only disingenuous, it's just plain stupid.

Of all the myopic think pieces that sluiced out in the wake of Mr. Williams' humiliating reversal of fortune, the one that called for NBC to simply dispatch with its flagship news broadcast was the most reminiscent of Mr. Magoo. The dirty little secret about media soothsayers is that they're well aware that no one ever remembers when they're wrong. In a year's time, it should be fun to remind them.

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