NBC didn’t technically air “Nightly News” last week — it aired “Nitely-News.” That spelling discrepancy has its rival, ABC News, behaving very un-Disney-like today.
The retitling of a news program is a clever, but generally accepted trick that networks sometimes play to keep an atypical evening out of Nielsen TV ratings averages — and there’s usually a pretty good explanation for the temporary spelling mistake. ABC doesn’t think three out of last week’s five nights offered such an excuse for NBC, and David Muir’s Communications team at ABC wasn’t shy about pointing that out to press.
“During the week, all five telecasts of ‘NBC Nightly News’ were retitled to ‘NBC-Nitely-News,'” ABC News reps, who pointed to the “razor-thin race” between themselves and NBC, wrote in a Tuesday media release. “The Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday telecasts were retitled despite airing at full coverage levels (93 percent). NBC chose to not include their ratings for one of the biggest news weeks of the year, which included former FBI Director James Comey releasing his prepared remarks and details from his memos to Congress and the American people.”
NBC News admits it did exactly what ABC called them out on, retitling Lester Holt’s show for the entirety of Monday through Friday, and representatives on that side say they made a logical choice with a plausible explanation.
“Due to sports, all three evening newscasts would have been rated on the same day only once last week: Tuesday evening,” an NBC News spokesperson told TheWrap. “One head-to-head night does not accurately reflect an entire week of ratings, so ‘Nightly News’ was retitled for the full week.”
Between NBC’s Stanley Cup Finals and ABC’s NBA Finals, four of the five weeknights boasted live sports championships on broadcast television — but it is highly irregular for a network to retitle when those games aren’t on its own channel.
It’s important to note here that all three major broadcast networks do dabble in the practice retitle news telecasts, generally to accommodate holidays and live sports, which can throw off a schedule. On a game night, an entire news program could be preempted and not even air on the west coast, for example, due to time zone differences.
Retitling for an entire week or longer is also not completely unprecedented. CBS retitled “Face the Nation” for the entire month of August 2016, and ABC retitled “Good Morning America” for the full week of Dec. 26, 2011. That said, no network has ever retitled an evening news program for an entire week since Nielsen records began in 1991.
Even if one doesn’t like NBC’s maneuver, it’s easy to understand why executives there chose to omit this particular week from the records. Leading up to this June, “Nightly News” had won 96 of 97 weeks in the key 25-54 news demographic. The lone loss was the same week last year and with the same setup: 2 Stanley Cup games on NBC and 2 NBA Finals games on ABC. In other words, NBC didn’t want to lose and break its streak, and folks over there believed wiping the whole weird week clean was actually the accurate thing to do.
Either way, NBC didn’t technically do anything against Nielsen Policy, a person with knowledge of the ratings currency company’s rules told TheWrap. Beyond that, retitling pretty much just comes down to a gentleman’s agreement.
Who really won the week of June 5, 2017 depends on which end of this philosophical argument you side with — but there are implications beyond just five nights in June. By NBC excluding the lackluster last week from its season average ratings, ABC’s overall lead decreased from 33,000 total viewers to 12,000. In other words, this thing is close, and both sides know that.