Friday, September 17, 2004

A drop in ratings? CBS could pay the ultimate price for standing by anchorman Dan Rather’s insistence that he did not use forged documents in an effort to prove that President Bush compromised his National Guard service three decades ago.

“The news is a commodity with a brand image. Just as you’d shy away from a product if it had a poor performance rating, CBS will suffer in the short term and lose viewers,” noted Center for Media and Public Affairs Director Matthew Felling, who suggested that CBS could consider suspending Mr. Rather for a month.

“But if CBS makes a high-profile campaign to regain its image, the public is forgiving, even in this politicized, thousand-channel era.”

Overall, CBS is at the bottom of the heap for evening newscasts nationwide, according to Nielsen Media Research ratings.

Mr. Rather drew an average 6.7 million viewers last week. ABC’s Peter Jennings had 8.6 million, while NBC’s Tom Brokaw won the race with 9.5 million, a Nielsen spokeswoman said yesterday.

The trend marks a fall for CBS, which has been in second place the past two years.

Still, the National Guard story had some cachet: 6.9 million people tuned in Sept. 8 to watch Mr. Rather face “60 Minutes” cameras and claim he had obtained four damaging documents showing that Mr. Bush had disobeyed a direct order, among other charges. Several news organizations and document experts say the memos appear to be forged.

The nation was less interested in Mr. Rather’s follow-up story a week later. An NBC interview with injured Las Vegas tiger tamer Roy Horn came in first in the evening lineup Wednesday, averaging 14 million viewers; more than 6 million tuned in to “60 Minutes.”

Ironically, CBS leads in the fictional entertainment realm. Thanks to “Big Brother” and “NCIS,” CBS topped ABC, NBC and Fox this week.

“If there’s damage because of the story, it’s most likely to hurt Dan Rather, rather than CBS,” New York-based network news analyst Andrew Tyndall said yesterday. “But there may be no damage. The jury is still out on this.”

The United States may not care about Mr. Rather’s memo hubbub, however.

Only 21 percent of the nation is closely following stories related to “Bush’s National Guard service,” according to a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll of 2,494 adults taken between Sept. 8 and Sept. 14 and released yesterday.

Media Research Center director Brent Bozell called CBS’ latest defensive efforts “pathetic,” adding, “Sentiments about the spirit of forged documents are utterly irrelevant, but in the tradition of Bill Clinton’s classic denials, it all depends on what CBS’ definition of ‘truth’ is.”

CBS also is a vigorous supporter of John Kerry, according to a Center for Media and Public Affairs summary of 432 network news stories between June 1 and Sept. 2.

It found that 69 percent of CBS stories covering Mr. Kerry were positive, while 44 percent of those on Mr. Bush gave positive feedback. The corresponding numbers at ABC were 55 percent and 45 percent, and 64 percent and 27 percent at NBC.

Meanwhile, a further breakdown of ratings numbers found Mr. Rather’s “CBS Evening News” broadcast languishing in nine of the top 10 markets in the country. In Philadelphia, for example, Mr. Rather drew 2.6 million viewers, compared with 13 million for ABC and 4 million for NBC.

In New York, Mr. Rather was again beaten by his network rivals, and had a smaller audience than three sitcom reruns, according to a comparison by Matt Drudge yesterday.

• Contact Jennifer Harper at or 202/636-3085.

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