Please excuse us for thinking we were reading an NBC corporate press release rather than a news story when we came across David Bauder’s Associated Press piece yesterday about Brian Williams’ first three days as NBC’s new Tom Brokaw — headlined, “NBC’s Williams Gets Off to Strong Start.”
“It’s still early,” Bauder, AP’s television reporter, noted in his lead, “but NBC’s attempt at a seamless transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams on ‘Nightly News’ appears to have worked.” (We searched, but couldn’t locate, an actual NBC press release on this topic for comparison’s sake.)
And how does Bauder support the conclusion that, after only three days, NBC can consider the Brokaw-to-Williams transition a success?
“Williams beat ABC’s Peter Jennings and CBS’s Dan Rather handily in the ratings during his first three days as anchor,” Bauder reported. (Never mind the coattail effect — that “NBC Nightly News” has routinely outdone its network peers in ratings. Never mind, as well, the myriad reasons why three days is hardly enough time to make this conclusion — might, for example, some curious folks have tuned in to NBC “Nightly News” just to watch the new guy do his thing? Who’s to say they’ll stick around? And so on…)
Next, just as it would be in a press release, the public hears from Williams’ executive producer, reinforcing, in a canned quotation, the “strong start” theme. “‘It’s been a successful transition,’ said Steve Capus, ‘Nightly News’ executive producer. ‘That’s what those [ratings] numbers speak to.’”
(We wouldn’t be journoscolds if we didn’t pause to point out that this fixation — shared by network news executives, producers, and the press who cover them — on who’s up or down in the ratings too often drowns out other, related issues, such as the actual quality of the news the networks offer and what bold steps might be required to improve it. )
But back to AP’s Bauder, who finally, and blessedly, shoots himself in the foot by reporting that both NBC’s and ABC’s producers “cautioned not to draw too many conclusions from only three days of ratings.”
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