Smaller story to report, but battle rages on

ABC, NBC mirror losses as news race goes down to the wire; declines hit late-night, mornings

It so far has been a back-and-forth battle in the ratings between the top two evening newscasts, while CBS remains a distant third ... and dropping.

There has been no shortage of headlines about the "CBS Evening News" and Katie Couric. But the real battle is between ABC's "World News With Charles Gibson" and "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams" — and the near photo-finish the two have battled to all season.

As of this week, ABC and CBS are so close to each other that it's a virtual tie in viewership and the adults 25-54 demographic — the programs have even fallen by the same percentage points so far this year.

NBC seemed to turn the tide in November when Williams appeared as the guest host of the last "Saturday Night Live" before the WGA strike. That gave Williams, a naturally funny guy, a chance to jump out of the strict anchor role at a time when he had been feeling the heat from Gibson in the ratings.

In a busy news season highlighted by the 2008 presidential campaign, NBC is poised to finish slightly ahead of ABC in total viewers, while ABC is up slightly against NBC in adults 25-54. Even with election-related news, both are down 4% compared with a year ago in the 25-54 demo.

Morning newsIn the morning, though, there's no denying that NBC's "Today" is on top.

Like in the evening, CBS' "The Early Show" is far behind its NBC and ABC competitors, but it also is showing some gains year-over-year.

Late-Night TVThe WGA strike has made for a tough year in late-night TV.

Even with the plaudits directed at "Saturday Night Live" thanks to its buzz-worthy political humor, the late-night shows are suffering from a post-strike hangover in the form of double-digit ratings declines.

Each program was out of originals for at least two months during the strike, with the CBS shows returning with their writers in early January but still being beaten by writerless NBC fare.

For the season, "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" still is on top by a large margin.

Newsmagazine "Nightline," which was not affected by the strike, fared the best in rating retention, down only about 4% in viewers from last season.

But with NBC swapping Conan O'Brien for Leno next year, it's interesting to see what's happening at 12:30 a.m. "Late Night" remains on top with 2 million viewers vs. "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson's" 1.7 million. But NBC's margin of victory is 150,000 viewers compared with 490,000 last year. And Ferguson won a week this season, the first time that had ever happened.

On Saturday, "SNL" remains the unquestioned leader, whether it's primetime or late-night. "SNL" averaged 5.3 million viewers this year, down 17% compared with a year ago, and a 2.2 rating, down 21% from last year. (partialdiff)