CBS’ Afghanistan trip unrewarded, a ratings downer

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NEW YORK (AP) - Katie Couric and the “CBS Evening News” team did some striking work during a two-day trip to Afghanistan last week, only to see some record-setting low ratings in return.

The Nielsen Co. ratings have to be discouraging to news organizations contemplating expensive assignments in a tough economy. The broadcast’s executive producer, Rick Kaplan, said he made “no apologies” for traveling to the war zone because of the importance of the story.

The CBS newscast averaged 4.89 million viewers last week, the lowest for evening newscasts in the nearly 20 years in which compatible Nielsen Co. records exist and most likely the lowest for at least a couple of decades before that into the early days of television. CBS also dipped below 5 million for one week in late July, during the normally slow summer months.

For the Thursday telecast that started the trip, the CBS newscast was seen by 4.69 million people, Nielsen said. Friday’s show dipped to 4.38 million.

The broadcasts featured war zone interviews by Couric of the U.S. Afghan commander, Gen. David Petraeus. Correspondent Terry McCarthy did a story about a U.S. Marine team in charge of locating and defusing bombs, and of the three men he featured one was killed and the others were seriously wounded in an explosion.

Couric’s final essay was about what might happen to women if the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan. She asked: “Will the nations of the world allow the newfound rights of girls and women to become a casualty of a brokered peace?”

Between the United States’ growing world-weariness and the quiet summer months, CBS knew that going to Afghanistan wasn’t going to be an audience-grabber, Kaplan said.

“We think the story was worth it,” he said. “I make no apologies for it at all. We didn’t expect any huge ratings surplus. What was important to us was that we do it and we do it well.”

By those standards, the trip “was a complete and utter success,” he said.

Kaplan said he believed his ABC and NBC rivals would do the same story under similar circumstances. While the viewership figures are low in the context of network evening newscasts, they still exceed virtually all cable news programs.

In prime-time last week, the return of quarterback Brett Favre helped push a Minnesota Vikings exhibition football game to the top of the ratings.

For the week, CBS led with an average prime-time viewership of 6.1 million (3.9 rating, 7 share). NBC was second with a 5.7 million average (3.6, 7), ABC had 5 million (3.1, 6), Fox had 4.6 million (2.9, 5), ION Television had 1.2 million (0.8, 1) and the CW had 1.1 million (0.7, 1).

Among the Spanish-language networks, Univision led with a 3.6 million viewer average (1.8, 3). Telemundo had 810,000 viewers (0.4, 1), TeleFutura had 700,000 (0.3, 1), Azteca had 190,000 (0.1, 0) and Estrella had 180,000 (0.1, 0).

NBC’s “Nightly News” topped the evening newscasts with an average of 7.4 million viewers (5.0 rating, 11 share). ABC’s “World News” had 6.5 million (4.5, 10) and CBS had a 3.3 rating and 7 share.

A ratings point represents 1,149,000 households, or 1 percent of the nation’s estimated 114.9 million television homes. The share is the percentage of in-use TVs tuned to a given show.

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