Debate Backlash: ABC Feels It In The Ratings

The ratings for last week's evening newscasts are in — and it appears that the angry viewers claiming that they would no longer watch ABC after last week's poorly-received debate made good on their promise: NBC beat ABC by over 600,000 viewers last week — an unusually wide margin for the dueling newscasts.

One reason for that wider-than-usual gap — averaging out Friday's numbers: On Friday, NBC beat ABC by 1.1 million viewers — a practically unheard of margin for an otherwise random Friday night. But it wasn't so random — by Friday, the post-debate backlash was in full swing, with reviews castigating moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulous for their performance, and viewer complaints racking up over 17,600 and counting on alone.

Here are the numbers:

What will this bode for this week? The ABC comments are now at 19,425, suggesting a drop-off after the initial outcry, so who knows if this was a flash rejection out of momentary anger or a larger-scale defection. ABC must be feeling it — why else was their lead story last night on gas prices, followed by food prices, on the eve of the first primary in over six weeks? (Politics finally showed up on the broadcast 6:55 minutes in). Update: As it turns out, according to a source with access to preliminary Nielson data, ABC actually beat NBC last night. See above re: the "who knows" factor.

To that end, let's put this in context: Last year at this time, the gap between the two broadcasts was actually larger — in ABC's favor (see here, here and here). You will recall that the NBC ratings jumped over the Virginia Tech story (see here), and then slid in relation to ABC in the weeks following. Many things can go into ratings — lead-in numbers, sporting events, daylight saving time, who was on Oprah — so a number of factors could have contributed to the overall numbers, and will going forward. Still, 1.1 million viewers is a pretty significant block, and worth noting.

A note on CBS' viewers: The total viewer number of 5.39 million is even lower than the 5.4 million figure for Labor Day week which I cited recently as the ratings low for CBS. It is, in fact, a record low. This means that in the week before the much-ballyhooed Pennsylvania primary, with viewers leaving ABC in anger over the debate, CBS actually lost, not gained, viewers. What this says: The recent reports and/or rumors about Katie Couric 's impending departure from CBS have had an effect on viewers, old and potentially new: They don't want to spend their time with a lame duck anchor.

All of which means that this was a particularly good week for NBC.

A Record Low For 'CBS Evening News'
[TV Decoder - NYT]

Update, Cont'd: Here are the prelim numbers for Monday, April 21st: ABC 8.32 million, NBC with 7.98 million. Interesting.