By David Bauder
AP Television Writer
Evening newscasts on ABC and CBS are both gaining ground on market leader Brian Williams of NBC News, but that’s one of the few things they have in common.
Behind Diane Sawyer, second-place ABC is making strides with a sleek “World News” that emphasizes the American family, news that hits home and the cultural zeitgeist. Scott Pelley has revealed himself to be a traditionalist at “CBS Evening News,” leading a show weighty with significant national and international events.
NBC’s “Nightly News” remains in first place, where it has generally been since the late 1990s except for a brief run by Charles Gibson at ABC. The Nielsen company said NBC’s viewership is down from last year while ABC and CBS are up, with ABC in July winning a week among the key 25-to-54-year-old demographic for the first time since 2008.
Despite decades-long prophecies of doom, network evening newscasts remain a vital part of television’s landscape, collectively reaching more than 22 million people each weeknight. Williams’ newscast is more popular than NBC’s prime-time programming.
Now there’s a creative push to distinguish broadcasts that once seemed interchangeable.
“We recognize the environment has changed very significantly,” said James Goldston, ABC’s senior vice president of news. “The days when an evening newscast can act as a digest of the day’s news are gone.”
What’s happening in the evening is similar to the morning, in terms of content. ABC’s “Good Morning America” has swept past NBC’s “Today” with a breezy show on the tip of pop culture and hosts that ooze chemistry. CBS remains in third, but has gained ground since it stopped trying to imitate its rivals.
Getting beyond the day’s obvious headlines is where different priorities emerge.
ABC frequently airs detailed reports by Paula Faris that give concrete advice on how families can find savings; she recently talked about trimming fees included in home sales and costs related to sending someone off to college. The “Real Money” series is less “news” than practical advice.
At CBS, “we like to have news all the way through the broadcast,” said Patricia Shevlin, executive producer.
Tyndall’s content analysis also illustrates priorities. For instance, ABC spent twice as much time as CBS on winter weather stories and liked tales of lottery winners. CBS has given roughly four times the airtime to stories on gun control than ABC, with more than twice the coverage of Syria.
CBS’ viewership is up 7 percent this year to 6.4 million people per episode, Nielsen said. CBS is down 2 percent, however, among that 25-to-54-year-old demographic. That indicates “CBS Evening News” is winning back many traditional viewers — the people who once watched Walter Cronkite, not just read about him — more than gaining new ones.
ABC’s audience is up 3 percent to 7.6 million, while NBC is down 2 percent to 8.4 million.
Goldston said ABC works under the assumption that most viewers know the headlines when they tune in and are looking for something new. ABC emphasizes its own exclusives, leading “World News” last month when Robin Roberts interviewed a juror in the George Zimmerman trial and last week shuffling the broadcast at the last minute for a Brian Ross report on drone strikes in Yemen.
Shevlin said CBS hopes vivid reporting can take viewers inside the news of the day — sometimes literally, as Pelley hits the road on big stories.