The three largest TV networks all misspelled the names of their evening newscasts last Friday, joining dozens of other broadcasts with erroneous titles this year — part of a clever long-standing strategy to boost a show’s average ratings by making its lowest-rated episodes look like a different show entirely.
According to Nielsen’s records, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News aired every day last week except the Friday before Memorial Day, when the networks treated their smaller-than-average audiences to identical-seeming shows called Wrld News Tonite, CBS-Evening-Nws and NBC-Nitely-News.
These strategic typos caused Nielsen to automatically leave Friday out of all three shows’ average ratings, making viewership look higher for the rest of the week.
The same tactic was also used in the last week of April, when NBC and CBS renamed Wednesday evening newscasts that conflicted with President Joe Biden’s speech to Congress in some parts of the country, and ABC renamed a pair of Thursday and Friday news shows that conflicted with the network’s NFL Draft coverage.
This isn’t a new practice: The networks have retitled their newscasts 40 times since the TV season started in late September — 18 times for ABC, 14 for CBS and eight for NBC — usually near holidays or when a large event preempts the evening news.
The trick appears to pay off: This season, ABC World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News are all averaging slightly more viewers than their conspicuously misspelled cousins (Forbes has reached out to all three networks for comment).
8.9 million. That’s ABC World News Tonight’s average total viewership this season, including episodes renamed Wrld News Tonite, handily beating NBC (which is averaging nearly 7.5 million viewers) and CBS (at 5.5 million viewers). When renamed episodes are taken out, average ratings only increased by 133,000 for ABC and about 50,000 for NBC and CBS.
Ratings are a crucial currency in the TV news business. Networks can charge higher ad rates if viewership is expected to be strong, top-rated shows sometimes pull in an extra premium from advertisers, and the bragging rights associated with high ratings make it easier to recruit high-profile guests, says Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC News producer who now serves as the dean of Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication. As a result, networks have used retitling to sand over low-rated news broadcasts like preempted shows and holiday programs for years. The networks argue this practice is a generally accepted way to prevent their shows’ overall ratings from being inaccurately skewed by schedule irregularities, and they note that Nielsen allows networks to rename their shows.
Broadcasters sometimes accuse each other of overusing this strategy. CBS retitled every Friday newscast for nearly two months last summer, and ABC sniped at NBC in 2017 for renaming an entire week’s worth of shows.
This practice doesn’t prevent advertisers from figuring out a program’s total viewership, because Nielsen still offers ratings data for the retitled editions of all three news shows.
Some observers say networks should limit their use of selective renaming. Lukasiewicz says it’s reasonable for networks to rename shows during preemptions and other rare cases, but overusing the tactic could undermine trust in both news outlets and Nielsen. He argued Nielsen and the networks should establish tighter guardrails for when they’re allowed to retitle.
“Playing games with numbers to alter reality is not a good practice,” Lukasiewicz, who served as NBC News’ senior vice president of specials, told Forbes. “News organizations shouldn’t be in the business of publishing things that aren’t true.”