As Uncertainty Grows, Viewers Find Comfort in Network News
The network newscasts had lost relevance, thanks to cable and digital media. Now, the coronavirus has put tens of millions of viewers back in the 6:30 p.m. habit.
Ten million people watched "The Voice" last week, the biggest audience for the NBC reality show in a year.
It was no match for another nonfiction program: the nightly newscast.
As Americans, housebound because of the coronavirus crisis, watch more TV than usual, they have returned to the network news programs that have not been at the center of the national conversation for years.
ABC's "World News Tonight" and the "NBC Nightly News" had an average of about 12 million viewers for their newscasts last week, among the biggest totals for all network shows, according to Nielsen. That's roughly the same as the average for "Monday Night Football."
The audience for "World News Tonight" was its largest since 2000, and the number of viewers watching "NBC Nightly News" was the most the show had drawn since 2005.
"Nothing else matters right now," Lester Holt, the anchor of "NBC Nightly News," said in an interview. "This is the story of our lifetimes."
Sober and straightforward, evening news programs were a chief information delivery system for decades, led by stolid anchors who guided viewers through triumphs and tragedies alike.
But they long ago lost their agenda-setting influence, supplanted by cable news networks that performed roughly the same function 24 hours a day. And they have been pushed further into the background in recent years by digital media, with its minute-by-minute chronicling of events.
The pandemic has brought back millions of viewers. For now, at least, a concise, crisply produced news program, devoid of the punditry and histrionics typical of many cable broadcasts, seems to match the national moment.
"I think the evening news plays a public service role, and now we're playing a public health role," said Norah O'Donnell, the anchor of "CBS Evening News."
In all, an average of 32.2 million people watched the evening newscasts last week, a 42 percent increase from a year earlier. Younger people have tuned in, too: There was a 67 percent rise among adults between the ages of 25 and 54, according to Nielsen.
The network newscasts have not attracted that kind of audience in years. While the Trump presidency has been a boon for the cable news networks -- which have consistently set ratings records since 2017 -- it has given no such lift to the evening shows.
For the 2018-19 television season, viewership dropped 3 percent. Among the young adult viewers prized by advertisers, there was a 6 percent decline. That trend has been apparent for a while, a steady fall from the days of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, when evening newscasts were a must-watch for roughly 40 million American households.
"It's been a very steep drop-off, and a generational drop-off, too," said Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC News executive and the dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. "The evening newscasts aren't part of the daily diet of working-age people anymore. They're just not part of it."
As the programs have lost their top-of-the-media-heap status, television executives have devoted more resources to the main profit centers of the network news divisions, the morning shows. Whether the 6:30 p.m. programs can maintain the audience they have brought aboard in a time of crisis is an open question.
David Muir, the anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight," said the evening newscasts provided a valuable service in a fraught time.
"This is a new normal, a sort of redefining of American life and who knows for how long," he said. "I do feel the responsibility, more than ever before, that we don't add to the noise. We have to have a place where people cut through it all and find the facts."
"CBS Evening News" had 7.6 million viewers on average for last week's newscasts, a rise of 21 percent. Among 25- to 54-year-olds, the numbers were more striking: a 30 percent surge.
"We play it right down the middle every night," Ms. O'Donnell said. "I think in this era, when people are fearful and looking for trusted sources, they're like, 'Oh, yeah, let me tune in at 6:30 Eastern, because I know I'm going to get just the facts."'
The networks have taken advantage of the renewed appetite by making their shows more readily available. NBC has moved a re-airing of its newscast to a 7:30 p.m. slot in several major markets, which has added several hundred thousand viewers to its audience, according to Nielsen, and ABC has broadcast "World News Tonight" live at 3:30 p.m. Pacific time in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
They are pulling it off with skeleton crews as many of their staff members work from home.
Mr. Holt, of NBC, was at home during a phone interview for this article on Monday, his dog barking in the background, in keeping with the network's plan to stagger the number of people at the program's 30 Rockefeller Plaza office throughout the day.
NBC had also fashioned a home studio in his Lower Manhattan apartment, just in case. And, indeed, a few hours after the interview, he anchored the broadcast from home for the first time.
When reflecting on the robust public interest in his show, Mr. Holt mentioned a lunch his wife had made for him recently: tomato soup and grilled cheese.
"Comfort food," he said. "We're all craving comfort. And whether it's tomato soup and grilled cheese, or watching a broadcast that you remember growing up with as a kid that your parents watched, I think it's all part of the same thing. What do I trust? What feels normal? What feels OK and comforting?"