Nightly newscasts vie for first

NBC, ABC have been neck-and-neck all season

There's been a lot of ink spilled about Katie Couric and her third-place newscast, but the real battle is for first place.

ABC's "World News With Charles Gibson" and "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams" are, in a way, the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama of the evening newscast race. NBC is tops in viewership, but not by much; ABC is tops in adults 25-54 but not by much. It has been this way all season, and it doesn't look like it's going to change much anytime soon.

"For all intents and purposes, it's a tie ballgame," said Jonathan Banner, executive producer of the ABC newscast. "It's a very competitive race."

NBC averaged 8.9 million viewers compared with ABC's 8.7 million so far this season, according to Nielsen Media Research. In adults 25-54, ABC averaged 2.7 million viewers vs. NBC's 2.68 million. NBC has won or tied for first place in viewers 21 of 30 weeks; ABC has won or tied for first place in the demo the same number.

"We've won the popular vote -- but you're right, we're in the same neighborhood," said Alexandra Wallace, the NBC newscast's executive producer.

It has been a long time since the nightly news ratings have been so close for so long. Traditionally, one star -- whether it be Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings or long ago Dan Rather -- is on top and the others further behind. Now it's a two-man race, with CBS far behind. That's a new feeling for both leading networks.

"It's great that there's such tough competition," Banner said. "We of course would like to be solidly No. 1, and we're trying as hard as we can to do that. But who knows where it's going to end up?"

Even outside events that could change the evening newscast landscape have had only a tangential effect, if any. Williams' star turn as guest host of "Saturday Night Live" in November gave the NBC newscast a bump, but no one thinks that was the sole reason. And the network is down slightly year-over-year in adults 25-54, as are the other two newscasts, though ABC is down the least. And despite scorn directed ABC's way for the April 16 Democratic presidential debate, few think there will be a lasting effect on "World News."

Network news analyst Andrew Tyndall said ABC and Gibson deserve credit for taking an underperforming newscast and making it tied for No. 1. NBC, on the other hand, should be commended for keeping its hold at the top.

"By all conventional measures, its failure in primetime should erode the popularity of its news division," Tyndall said. "But the 'Today' show and 'Nightly News' and 'Meet the Press' keep on going. That's very impressive."

Viewership declines so far this year are moderate compared with previous years, probably because of the big political and economic news of late.

"There's still a lot of attention on the evening newscasts," Wallace said. "They still have huge, huge audience numbers. That's a good thing."