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Did NBC Change ‘Nitely News’ Spelling in Effort to Goose Ratings? Sure Looks Like It

The fight between NBC’s Nightly News and recent challenger ABC’s World News Tonight has become so intense of late, that it appears that NBC went so far as to change the title of a recent episode only to improve their ratings and stay in first place. Is that move unfair? Savvy? Well, much like the terms “terrorist” or “freedom fighter,” it all depends upon one’s perspective. But first some background.

TV news people are a funny breed that — impossibly — are both confident enough to judge and report domestic and global news on a daily basis, but are also insecure enough to constantly seek validation with ratings. It is a big business, with big egos, so no one should be surprised that the total number of viewers is by far the most critical measure for network news executives like Andy Lack and James Goldston.

It seems that some will go to any length to win the ratings game, which appears to be the case with NBC News last week.

NBC’s Nightly News (hosted by Lester Holt) has long been the ratings leader, enjoying the title of most-watched network news program (for the season) over the past two decades. But since every good tragicomedy has an underdog, this story has one too: ABC’s World News Tonight, which has lately been hot on NBC’s trail.

Nightly News is dangerously close to losing the season to ABC in total viewers for the first time in 21 years. During the last season before David Muir became anchor (2013-14), World News Tonight lost the season by an average of more than 1 million viewers per night. Three years later, World News Tonight has closed this viewer deficit gap and is currently leading the season for the first time in 21 years since Peter Jennings was anchor.

World News Tonight has come so close to besting Nightly News that on the Friday night before Memorial Day weekend (a notoriously slow news day), it seems that NBC retitled their program to ‘Nitely News.’ This effectively took that low ratings day out of weekly average, which was just enough to — you guessed it — keep Nightly News ahead of World News Tonight for the week in total viewers.

According to research available at the time of publishing, had Nightly News‘ ratings average been based on the full five days of last week — as was ABC’s —  and did not retitle Friday’s program — then World News Tonight would have won the week by roughly 37,000 viewers head-to-head. But the shrewd manner by which NBC retitled Friday’s show dropped their lowest-rated day of the average which pulled NBC’s program ahead of ABC’s by 264,000. Oddly, had ABC also retitled their Friday show (dropping the least viewed day out of their weekly average) NBC would have also won the week. Got it?

Just last week ABC announced that World News Tonight won back-to-back November, February and May Sweeps for the first time in 21 years, and if World News Tonight holds on to the lead through September when the season ends, NBC would lose the season for the first time in more than two decades. To be fair, these are total viewer numbers. When it comes to the more important target demo metric to which most advertising revenue is attached, NBC still leads by a significant margin.

The retitling of broadcasts isn’t completely unheard of either. Typically newscasts change program names when there is a specific reason (like a holiday, event or specific news coverage.) While the Friday before Easter — aka, ‘Good Friday’ — often gets retitled, for example, the Friday before a Memorial Day had previously not seen a retitled program. NBC, ABC and CBS have not retitled the Friday before Memorial Day in at least the last decade, maybe longer, though curiously, ABC appeared to have been the outlier last week as NBC and CBS both retitled their shows.

When reached for explanation, NBC News declined comment.

This isn’t the first time NBC has displayed aggressive tactics. In 2015 they secretly aired Nightly News overnight in several markets to increase viewership and count two viewership numbers in these cities instead of one. And a cursory search of ‘Nitely News‘ suggests that this isn’t the first time that ‘Nitely News‘ has boosted their ratings.

Given how the race between NBC and ABC has grown so tight, it’s perhaps not the last time we see this tactic. But as they say, all’s fair in love, war and network news ratings.

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