NBC's Biggest Star?

Uncle Miltie. Lorne Greene. Bill Cosby. Brian Williams?

For what may be the first time in the TV network's existence, NBC's biggest star (in terms of ratings) may be its signature news anchor.

Now, it can be said Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were the "first TV news stars", as one book on television news stated years ago.  John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw had a following as well.  And Barbara Walters first became a star not on "20/20" or "The View" on ABC, but on NBC's Today Show (as is the case now with Matt Lauer).

But none of those can say they were on the network's highest-rated program.

In the most recent ratings, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams averaged 9.1 million viewers, easily outdistancing most of the network's prime-time schedule (the one exception is the seasonal "Sunday Night Football", whose games occasionally have topped the prime-time ratings).  Associated Press television writer David Bauder reported this week that the closest any other NBC series came was "Law and Order: SVU", with 7.3 million viewers.

NBC's news lineup isn't totally unbeatable.  Williams' newsmagazine program Rock Center, has been at the bottom at the ratings since it began on Halloween night. Both Nightly and Today have been losing viewers to ABC this year, although both are still on top. (And no network or cable news broadcast has as many viewers as Huntley-Brinkley or Walter Cronkite had in the 1960's or '70's.) And while it is gaining, NBC's cable news channel, MSNBC, is still behind CNN and Fox News Channel in audience. NBC, in fact, gets continuing criticism from the right, although it often returns the verbal volleys.

But with the network's uninmaginative lineup showing no signs of improving soon, the news division has become the clear crown jewel of the network, not unlike CBS News was during the Edward R. Murrow/Walter Cronkite era.  NBC's challenge will be to keep it that way. 


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