Brian Williams’ "Rock Center" hit a new ratings low on Wednesday night, so how long can NBC leave it on the air?
As long as it takes to gain traction, according to the network.
"It’s not a play to get a show on the air that will boost NBC ratings this season," David Corvo, Senior Executive Producer of Primetime News at NBC, told TheWrap.
"Everybody wants to be the number one show on television and everybody wants good ratings, but we have to be disciplined. The idea is to create a franchise that will last 20 years."
Still, the show’s numbers have to be troubling. Wednesday night’s episode drew a paltry 2.6 million viewers, scoring a 0.6/2 share in the crucial 18-49 demographic.
One could blame CNN’s debate or stiff competition from “American Idol” and “Modern Family” at the 9 p.m. time slot, but the show has had middling ratings ever since its October launch.
“The results have been underwhelming to say the least,” David Campanelli, national TV analyst for ad-buyer Horizon Media, told TheWrap.
Each of the past two weeks it attracted fewer than three million viewers, and on certain nights it has drawn lower ratings than everything from Univision’s “Don Francisco” to cable shows like Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor,” which airs at a different time.
The one exception was the NBC debate branded as a special episode of “Rock Center,” which drew a little more than 7 million viewers. But that was a special.
NBC is not looking for a ratings juggernaut from the weekly newsmagazine, especially given the poor performance of its other, more expensive prime time shows. CNN’s debate on Wednesday just outdrew its entire prime time lineup.
As a newsmagazine is considerably less expensive than a scripted show, NBC just wants to “keep the lights on” during a prime time slot, as one former NBC executive put it.
“I don’t think it’s even done that well enough for them,” Campanelli said.
Two different people with knowledge of the situation said NBC has made a two-year commitment to Williams, the news division’s undisputed star.
“It’s a firm commitment of two years on the air to Brian Williams,” one said. “Brian Williams is terribly important to [NBC News president] Steve Capus."
NBC denied such a pledge, saying that its dedication was about quality.
“We’ve had nothing but positive discussions,” Corvo said. “Everybody went into this understanding that it was going to be a process and nobody has wavered on that.”
A former broadcast executive agreed.
“It’s doing very good work,” he said. “That Bob Costas interview with [Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky], I couldn’t take my eyes of the screen.”
But neither that episode, nor the two appearances of new correspondent Chelsea Clinton have lifted the ratings substantially, prompting questions about what will.
Will it be Williams himself? From the "Nightly News' to his "Daily Show" appearances to his unlikely communications with Gawker Media CEO Nick Denton, he's the anchor of the moment. And as Corvo put it, the show “is his voice.”
“Brian is very very talented,” one former executive from another network said. “At the same time, it has been a while since the personality of the anchor of a newsmagazine has really determined the success of it.”
That may change if Williams does more of the stories himself, as he did on this past Wednesday’s show. Here's a clip of one of them:
Or what about star correspondents like Costas, Clinton, Harry Smith and Kate Snow?
Or the stories themselves?
“The biggest challenge is, what is the need that that program is addressing that isn’t otherwise being addressed for the audience?” a former news executive said. “’60 Minutes’ has carved out a very specific niche for itself, ‘48 Hours’ has one in the crime area.”
Corvo says the show’s primary goal – journalistic success – should do just that.
“I think the main statement we want to make, we are making…is that this will be serious journalism. The bulk of the program will be serious adult journalism on important topics. I don’t think enough people are aware of our presence, but they will be.”
Everyone TheWrap spoke with praised the show's talent and agreed that it takes time to build an audience for a newsmagazine. This particular show continues to move around on the schedule. It started on Mondays at 10 p.m., switched to Wednesdays at 9 p.m. and will soon move to Wednesdays at 10. More changes could be in store, but does that help or hurt in securing a loyal following?
“A little bit of both,” Corvo said. “If you move around, it’s harder for people to find you. But you also have to find them.”
The question is, how soon?